Have you ever been listening to a speech or reading an article when suddenly, the speaker/writer realises they’ve gone off-topic and says “but I digress”?
What does “But I digress” mean?
“But I digress” just means, “I seem to have gone off topic. But I will change that and go back on topic now”.
Usually, this is said by older people during formal conversations, we’ll look at these situations later in this article.
To digress simply means to start talking about a topic which is not the topic people were expecting you to talk about.
In this article, I’ll be looking at why people say it when people say it and other topics related to the phrase.
Most of the time, when we meet up with our friends, we wouldn’t normally pre-plan what the topic of conversation is. In these kinds of situations, the subject of discussion will be whatever pops up at the time.
Most of the time, one thing will lead to another, and the topic will utterly change. I’ve been in situations where we’ve started off talking about the weather and ended talking about Henry VIII.
For this reason, it’s unlikely you’ll hear “but I digress” when talking in an informal setting.
Why we digress
I believe for us to understand the phrase, we need to understand why people digress. Why do we go off-topic so easily?
Most of the time, someone will say something that makes up think of something else. If someone mentions how much they hate driving, I will often go into a rant about how bad my country’s public transport system is.
When we digress, it’s usually because we believe what we have to say is important enough to change topics to talk about.
Digression often happens at times when we strongly agree or disagree with someone. If you were to speak to me about why pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza, as a pineapple on pizza believer, I might digress and talk about how most food we think of as “authentic” actually isn’t.
Who says “But I digress”?
Usually “but I digress” would be said in formal speeches or writing. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Politicians are known for avoiding the question and going off on long speeches about things that don’t even matter. When they notice the journalist/audience is getting annoyed, they might say “but I digress” to get back on track.
University professors have a habit of enjoying the sound of their own voice. As a result, they will often talk about fun trivia, or their personal life, before realising they have a class who needs to learn.
And finally, if you’re reading a newspaper, it might start giving extra information to provide context, before coming back to what the article is supposed to be about.
Examples of “But I digress”
The four main times people will say it is when others are angry at them, they’ve simply waffled on for too long, there are time limits, or when people stop paying attention.
When people are angry
“Unemployment has negative effects in many areas, the economy, our mental health, our children. Of course, we can hardly blame people when getting benefits is so easy”.
He looked around and saw people’s faces. He could tell they weren’t happy.
“But I digress. The important question is how we can tackle it”.
In the example above, the politician started talking about his dislike towards people on benefits. However, when he saw that the listeners were not impressed with what he was saying, he decided to quickly change the topic before they got too angry.
It was his way of saying “I can tell you’re annoyed. So let’s forget about what I just said”.
When you’ve waffled
“Some philosophers believe that consequentialism is not a good way to live your life. They believe that you can’t always tell what the consequences of your actions are going to be. It kind of reminds me of this one time when my wife told me we shouldn’t tell our friend about the mouse problem they have, she didn’t want to come across as rude. But a few weeks later, the little buggers had chewed through all their furniture. They ended up spending £500 to get it all sorted out. But I digress”.
In this example, the professor told a story to illustrate the point he was making. But he ended up going to for too long and going off-topic.
When on a time limit
“For 30 years you’ve been run by the orange party. And what have they done for you? Nothing! The schools are underfunded, our green space is being built on. When I was a young lad, we would spend hours playing in the fields, they were so big we could easily spend all day in them and never end up in the same place twice”.
He saw he had 20 seconds left.
“But I digress, vote for me and I will…”
When talking, politicians often have time limits, so they don’t waffle on for too long- which they like to do.
When people are bored
“I believe that we need to build more cycle paths, keeping cars and bikes separate will be better for everyone. I understand that there will be some stupid cyclists who don’t like to stick to the roads. Some people just think they’re above the rules, and they are free to do whatever they want. I don’t know what went wrong with these people” ‘
He saw a few yawns.
“But I digress. We will pay for these cycle paths by…”
In this example, the politicians could see that he was causing people to get bored, so decided to change the topic back to what they came to listen to.
Alternatives to “But I digress”
As with most phrases in the English language, there is more than one way of saying “but I digress”. Let’s take a quick look at some of them.
“But back on track” is a slightly more direct way of saying it. You’re saying what you’re about to do rather than what you have just done.
“Anyway” might be better for casual situations. It’s just one word that tells you everything you need to know.
The difference between Digress and Diverge
Another word that sounds similar to “digress” and has a related meaning is “diverge”. However, even though these two words are similar, there are some differences between the two.
Divergence can be physical. There can be a diverging road, which splits into two paths.
However, when you digress, it has a clear definition of “going off topic in speech or writing”. You divert from one path to another but digress from one topic to another.
However, there will be some situations where you could say to have “diverged from the topic”.
“I’ll stop waffling” is good to use when people are still listening but you need to get back on topic.
Etymology of “Digress”
“Digress” comes from the Latin “disgradi”. This word is made up of the prefix “dis” meaning apart. You might recognise it from words such as disappear, dissipate, and disassociate. The suffix “gradi” means to go.
That word comes from the Proto-Indo-European word “gredh” which means “to go”.
The word “digress” came about in the 1520s, so it has been part of our language for a while.
The tense problem of “But I digress”
Those of you who know about tense might have noticed a problem with “but I digress”. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to explain.
“But I digress” is written in the present simple, suggesting it happens often. However, when you say it, you’re not saying you do it often, just that you’re doing it right now. So surely it should be “but I’m digressing”?
Whilst this is true, it doesn’t matter. As I’ve said in many of my previous articles, languages aren’t dictated by logic, they’re dictated by usage. So even though the phrase is in the present simple, we use it in the present continuous.
Will “But I digress” last?
Personally, I’m in two minds about whether or not this phrase is going to last.
It’s a formal phrase, and formality doesn’t change anywhere near as quickly as casual talk does. Our grandparents were always taught to say please and thank you, and so were we.
But then again, please and thank you are used by people of all ages. Whereas “but I digress” is almost always used by older people. I can’t help but feel that when that generation dies off, so will most of the language they tend to use.
“But I digress” means “I’ve gone off topic. But I’ll get back on topic know”. We tend to digress a lot in casual conversation because we don’t go in knowing the topic, new things pop up, and we like to talk. However, during formal talks, it’s more common to hear the phrase.
The most common type of people who say it are professors, politicians, and journalists. Usually, it’s said when people are angry, you’ve waffled for too long, you have a time limit, or people just aren’t paying attention anymore.
It’s an interesting phrase that throws into question the rules of the English language. But will it last? I’m afraid only time will tell.