Q: I’ve noticed a construction in older British novels (Agatha Christie, for example) where a character says “I’m by way of being a doctor” instead of simply “I’m a doctor.” Can you tell us anything about this odd use of four unnecessary words?
A: This usage—“I’m by way of being” a doctor, a writer, an actor, etc.—is a mainly British colloquialism that isn’t seen or heard much these days.
In fact, we’ve found only five examples in a recent search of the British National Corpus, a database of written and spoken British English from the later part of the 20th century.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the verb “to be” plus the compound preposition “by way of” plus a gerund has several senses: “to have as one’s particular role; to make a special point of doing something; to purport or be reputed to be or do something; (sometimes) spec. to be in the habit of doing the specified activity.”
The dictionary describes the usage as “colloquial (chiefly British)” and says it’s “now somewhat literary.” In fact, four of the five examples we found in the British National Corpus are from fiction.
In the passage you cited from Agatha Christie’s 1938 mystery Appointment With Death, the expression is used in the sense of “to have as one’s particular role.”
The BNC has this more recent example from Master of the Moor, a 1982 mystery by Ruth Rendell: “I’m by way of being a bit of an expert on the moor, you know.”
The linguist Anne-Katrin Blass has noted that “in most cases, the construction co-occurs with downtoners” (like “a bit”) or “other markers of tentativeness” (like “you know”).
“Thus, it might be claimed that the communicative purpose of using this phraseological unit in discourse is to signal a certain reluctance to commit oneself fully to the idea one is expressing,” she writes. (“Textual Functions of Extended Lexical Units: A Case Study of Phrasal Constructions Built Around by way of,” a paper published in the ICAME Journal, April 2012.)
As you can see, Blass is reluctant to commit herself fully to this theory. And so are we. Although Ruth Rendell’s use of the construction is clearly tentative, Agatha Christie’s doesn’t seem to be.
[Note: A reader of the blog who’s by way of being a doctor wonders “whether the expression does not suggest modesty (or false modesty) or casualness, an attempt to lessen the impact of the announcement.”]
The earliest citation for the construction in the OED uses it “to make a special point of doing something”—in this case, introducing a young man to society: “The Colonel was by way of introducing him into the fashionable circles” (from The Inheritance, an 1824 novel by the Scottish writer Susan E. Ferrier).
The earliest example we’ve found for the expression used in the occupational sense you’re asking about is from a short story by Henry James: “Oh, you see I’m by way of being a barrister” (from part one of “An International Episode,” published in The Cornhill Magazine, London, December 1878 and January 1879).
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