If you hold someone at bay, you’re keeping him or her at a distance, or at arm’s length. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms defines it as a way “to control something and prevent it from causing you problems.”
I have to admit, I walked into this Thursday Trivia research thinking it was a slam-dunk easy topic to write about. Hah.
The Word Detective complained that this wasn’t as easy to figure out as one might think, simply because there are far too many “bays” in the English language. First you have nine different nouns, then you have six different verbs. There’s even an adjective thrown in for good measure!
She points out something I never knew: many of these “bays” have distinct origins all their own and have nothing to do with one another.
First you have your bay window. Then there’s the herb, bay leaf. Oh, and what about the inlet to an ocean? Did you know bay was a color, too? It’s a hair- or coat-color for horses (as in a “bay mare’).
And here I thought “at bay” referenced the sound a dog makes when he’s found prey.
In this case, that’s exactly what it means. “At bay” refers to a hound’s baying, and it comes from the Old French, bayer, meaning “to bark.” (No, not the aspirin. Our bayer is pronounced buy-YAY.)
The phrase has had a nice, long run. Dogs, it would appear, have been holding their prey “bayer” – at bay – since the late 1200s to early 1300s!
Good thing, too. I just can’t see a bay leaf being very effective at holding people at a distance, can you? Garlic, maybe….
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange
The Free Dictionary
The Word Detective
Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: October 08, 2013).
Wikipedia: Horse coat colors
Chris via Creative Commons (two dogs)
MTSOfan via Creative Commons (CU)