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Why Does 'At Bay' Mean to Hold Off Something?

Sometimes you use a phrase your whole life without knowing (or wondering) what it means, and then it strikes you that it's odd—that it's an idiom whose meaning has nothing to do with the words you're saying. Last week, I realized that to keep something at bay is one of those phrases. Here's what it means.

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

keep at bay meaning origin

Last week I told my husband I was going to take some Ibuprofen to try to keep my headache at bay, and then I started wondering what “at bay” actually means. I thought it probably had to do with keeping enemy ships in a bay instead of mooring, but I’m not one to guess at a meaning and assume I’m right, so I decided to look it up. 

It’s a good thing I did because my oh-so-logical guess was wrong. It’s not ships that are held at bay, but hounds. 

To keep at bay or hold at bay was what a hunted animal like a fox did to hounds on a hunt. You can imagine a cornered fox making a last stand against the hounds, who are all barking, howling, or baying in a wild cacophony. They are being held at bay—in a position where they can’t attack and are limited to baying. The phrase goes all the way back to the 1300s.

Sources

bay, n.4. Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. http://0-www.oed.com.innopac.library.unr.edu/view/Entry/16386?rskey=IEWIE9&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid25682376 (subscription required. accessed February 28, 2015).

“Meaning and origin of ‘at bay.’ ” StackExchange website. English Language and Usage section. http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/48361/meaning-and-origin-of-at-bay (accessed February 28, 2015).

“Back off.” The Word Detective website. September 29, 2006. http://www.word-detective.com/092906B.html (accessed February 28, 2015).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.