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At bay: where is that bay?

To keep somebody or something at bay means “to keep a dangerous opponent at a distance; to hold off, ward off a disaster, etc.” The very first interpreters of this idiom guessed its origin correctly. They stated that bay here means “to bark” and that at bay refers to hunting. Many phrases in our language are ossified hunting metaphors. Perhaps the best-known among them is to beat about the bush (that is, to run around the bush, in order to flush the birds and shoot them on the wing; hence the figurative meaning “to run in circles, thereby avoiding the issue”).

At bay is perhaps less transparent, because nowadays bay is a rare synonym for bark. But, as noted, no one has ever doubted what situation it describes. A cornered animal, most typically a stag (but also a fox or a hare), is too tired to keep running (you will agree that not everybody can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds), faces its pursuers, and dares them attack it. The dogs stay away from the antlers or teeth of their prey and wait for the hunter to shoot it. In the meantime, they bark and are kept literally “at bay.” Bay is here a noun, even though it is used without a or the. In the fifteenth century, people said to bring, turn, etc. at a bay, but the correct reading may be at abay, for Old French had abay and aboy (Modern French aboi)—so at least in the phrase to bring to bay. Hold at bay seems to represent or correspond to Old French tenir a bay and Italian tenere a bada “hold in suspense or expectation,” literally “on the gape”: Old French bay and Italian bada mean “suspense.” If this etymology is correct, the phrases with bay have a double origin.

At bay.
At bay.

In the entry at bay, some very old dictionaries, including Skinner (1671) and the earliest editions of Webster, cited Old Engl. bīdan “to wait” (extant in to bide one’s time). One should be especially cautious, while dealing with the sources that use the word undoubtedly (for instance, in the once immensely popular dictionary by Charles Richardson, bay is said to be undoubtedly the same word as bad and base). All those pseudo-cognates should be disregarded. At first sight, the idea that at bay has something to do with bīdan makes sense: “to wait” suggested “in suspense”; yet bīdan and bay have nothing in common. The OED also suggested a double origin. It began the entry with the words: “Two words seem here to be inextricably confused,” one designating “bark,” the other “suspense.”

And this is at the bay
And this is at the bay

The scholar who reconstructed the fusion or confusion of two words in the phrases to bay and at bay ~ at a bay was Hensleigh Wedgwood, the most authoritative English etymologist for nearly forty years before Skeat. He emphasized the role of sound imitation, which he tended to carry to great, sometimes absurd extremes. As early as 1845, he wrote: “So [French] abayer is rendered to listen to, to wait for with open mouth…. Hence our abeyance, a state of expectation or dependence upon anything…. Hence also our expression of standing at bay…, precisely equivalent to the Italian stare a bada, to stand at gaze, intently watching anything, completely taken up with it…. The Scotch abeigh represents the state of a person gazing at a distance on the object of his desire or attention.” The same explanation of at bay can be found in all three editions of his etymological dictionary. We can see that Wedgwood connected the sound imitative syllable ba not with barking but with an open mouth. And it is this detail (an open mouth or the sound of barking?) that years later became the center of a controversy on the origin of the phrase at bay.

The hidden traces of this controversy can perhaps be found even in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966). In it, bay4 is defined as “barking of dogs in company; chiefly (now only) in phr. (hold, keep) at bay….” (first recorded in the thirteenth century), from Old French bai…. Another bay, bay6 “bark with a deep voice,” from the imitative base bai, first recorded a century later, is said to have been influenced by bay4. Although the two words are given slightly different etymons, it remains unclear how one word for “bark” influenced another one having the same meaning. Wedgwood was more consistent: as we have seen, he traced at bay to gaping rather than to barking. In 1873, after reading a statement that ran counter to his view, he was “distressed at the heresy… with respect to ‘at bay’. The resemblance [of at bay] to aux abois is merely accidental… Aux abois is at the last extremities; at bay is when the weaker party faces his pursuers and keeps them off.”

This a bay window. It has nothing to do with our story. There are at least three equally irrelevant bay's.
This a bay window. It has nothing to do with our story. There are at least three equally irrelevant bay’s.

This could have been the end of it if at bay had not attracted the attention of the learned and formidable Frank Chance, an almost forgotten researcher and the object of my unflagging admiration. (I’ll keep repeating that Oxford University Press should bring out his complete works, one volume containing his short contributions mainly, almost exclusively, to Notes and Queries, in those days an important forum for well-read amateurs, antiquarians, and distinguished scholars). He insisted on the connection (“connexion”) of French aux abois and Engl. at bay and did without Wedgwood’s reference to gaping. Italian tenere a bada, he pointed out, has nothing to do with the dogs’ “beholding their prey within their grasp almost.” Moreover, as far as those phrases are concerned, “Italian never came into contact with English,” and the Italian phrases were never used of hunted animals; they never meant anything like “stand (or keep) at bay.” Rather, they meant “to divert the attention of the enemies.”

Agape but not at bay.
Agape but not at bay.

Frank Chance had the support of Friedrich Ch. Diez’s Romance etymological dictionary and of Skeat, who first shared Wedgwood’s view but later opposed it. When Chance attacked, very few people emerged unscathed. Wedgwood defended a minor point of his interpretation but admitted that Chance had hit the nail on the head (“as he commonly does”). Chance did not budge and wrote a long note defending his reconstruction and crushing all the arguments of his opponent. Wedgwood never responded. The exchange took place in 1881 and 1882. In 1882, the full volume of Skeat’s etymological dictionary came out (like all such works, it was being published in installments), a masterpiece still in need of improvement but making Wedgwood’s work obsolete. (Unfortunately, Wedgwood’s insights were buried together with his fanciful ideas.) 1884 saw the appearance of the first volume of the OED. Almost at a single stroke, all previous scholarship in the area of English etymology became rather uninspiring history.

With regard to the phrase at bay, I think Frank Chance showed the way, so that it is no longer necessary to speak of two words inextricably confused in its derivation: no gaping, just barking. And indeed, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology makes no mention of Italian bada, even though not everything in its explanation of bay 4 and bay 6 is clear enough. In the OED online, in the entry at bay, the etymology has not yet been revised. I am sure all our readers will wait for the revision with bated breath. As things stand, all of us are kept at bay.

Image credits: (1) “Stag Hunt” by Paul de Vos, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “Sunset Sundown Da Nang Bay” by PublicDomainPictures, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “Architecture Bay Window” by Markus Baumeler, Public Domain via Pixabay. (4) “Feline Animal Teeth Lion Wild Cat Mane Nature” Public Domain via Max Pixel. Featured image credit: “Fox Hunting” by Henry Thomas Alken, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Rudy Troike

    The first thing which came to my mind was the almost fixed phrase “the baying of the hounds”, which perpetuates the kind of drawn-out sound of hunting dogs on the trail of game, not the same as the woof-woof-woof or yap-yap-yap of many dogs’ bark.

  2. Anne

    Baying isn’t quite barking. It’s more like howling. Dogs do it when they think some situation requires more than plain barking.

    The sound really carries.

    The hunting situation could fit that (although I have zero experience.)

    It is really funny to hear a tiny dog baying. The baying of the Chihuahuas!

  3. Brett

    Hi Anatoly,

    I am fascinated by this post and the comment “Many phrases in our language are ossified hunting metaphors”. Please consider this a request for further post/s excavating buried traces of the hunt in English!

    On the topic of post requests: Though in the case of bay you aren’t persuaded by the “gaping of the mouth” etymological argument, I would love further exploration from you (for other words/phrases) regarding the influence on meaning of enunciation/vocalization’s physical mouth/tongue/larynx/breath movements. I am a poet and reader of poetry rather than a linguist/etymologist, and have not encountered much writing on this topic (apart from M.H. Abrams’ “4th Dimension of a Poem”) which is both rigorous and geared toward an audience beyond technical/academic linguists. I find the phonological layers of meaning to be very rich ore in literature, and language generally, and would enjoy reading your thoughts mining that phonological ore.

    Many thanks for the stellar blog!


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