What’s the Origin of the “If By, You Mean” Snarky Comment?

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed rampant use of the structure “if by” and “you mean”. The sentence is usually formed like this:

If by x, you mean y, then…

Y is usually the polar opposite of x, or some cheeky variation on an opposite. The most recent example I saw was this note on the wonderful FOUND magazine’s website. Here’s another random example–somebody’s a bit frustrated with PeopleSoft:

At the above point in the interaction, it’s too late to actually cancel the message even if I’d wanted to. So if by CANCEL you mean OK, then yes. I was half expecting that when I clicked Cancel PeopleSoft would respond with TOO FREAKING BAD.

And here’s another example on Flickr. Google can find you plenty .

This structure has become a kind of linguistic mind. I’m sure linguists have a body of language to describe this phenomenon, but I don’t know any of it.

I wonder where it started? Did some clever TV writer devise it, and it grew from there? Or did some teenager in Boise, Idaho devise it over a game of Wii Tennis, and it spread to the cool kids and beyond? This is the sort of thing that Anil might know about.

After some further research, I did find what may be the origin of the rhetorical structure. Apparently it’s called If-by-whiskey, and refers to a 1952 speech on prohibition. I don’t know how it evolved from there into snarky popular usage.

Here’s a fun project: start a blog that showcases amusing uses of the term (I might do that, having registered IfByYouMean.net. I don’t want to talk about IfByYouMean.com). Or even better, build a little website talks to Google and displays a random example.


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