Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thursday Trivia: At Bay

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 Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: October 08, 2013).
Wikipedia: Horse coat colors

Chris via Creative Commons (two dogs) 
MTSOfan via Creative Commons (CU) 


  1. That is interesting. We never knew which bay it refers to. Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. we didn't know it meant to hold at a distance. though mom said after transporting a few bloodhounds, she has heard some good bays in her life :)

  3. Very interesting ... we love your trivia posts!

  4. I was wondering when that was going to get around to an animal reference.. :)

    I originally thought it was bay as in a water inlet and had something to do with a blockade..

  5. Oh you are just so smart! Me-Ommmmm

  6. Well we had NO idea this was the meaning! We were totally thinking a body of water. Way, WAY off!
    ; )

  7. Words are so fascinating! We use a spice for seasoning crabs - Old Bay. (A reference to the Chesapeake I think.)

  8. Oh, we LOVE your Thursday trivia! All we know about bay leaves is that it is not fun to find them in your soup. Ha ha.

  9. Where do you come up with all this interesting stuff from BOL, we use to have a bay window, now wez only got a bay tree :) xxoxxx

    Mollie and Alfie

  10. We all voted at once fer "at bay" meaning the woofies had treed or cornered something and were baying.

    But mebbe it was a lucky guess...

  11. yup, that was one Mom Linda knew only 'cuz she used to show her Sibes and she had a friend who handled lots of "at bay" woofies...MOL!

  12. Again we have learned something new. Thank you. Purrs and hugs, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Giulietta, Fiona, Astrid, Lisbeth and Calista Jo


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