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.
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.