Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The meaning is quite well established and straightforward—from TheFreeDictionary:

  1. (Lit.) The arrangement of features on an area of land. (Also with lie, especially British English.) "The surveyor mapped the lay of the land." "The geologist studied the lay of the land, trying to determine if there was oil below."

  2. (Fig.) The arrangement or organization of something other than land. "As soon as I get the lay of the land in my new job, things will go better." "The company's corporate structure was complex, so understanding the lay of the land took time."

But what is the origin of its figurative meaning? Does it predate frontier America?

share|improve this question

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The specifics are proving rather elusive. However, yourdictionary.com notes:

A related expression is how the land lies, as in Let's be cautious till we know how the land lies. This usage originated in Britain about 1700 as the lie of the land and is still so used there.

The modern definitions for 'lay' (or 'lie' for British English) do not include the meaning needed for this idiom, but must have at some point. That, or some other factor is needed to explain from whence the phrase evolved. The word which does fit the expression—layout—didn't turn up until 1910, according to etymonline.com. 'Layout' also implies a root definition for 'lay' that has been lost (well, transferred, anyway).

share|improve this answer

In the entry for lay, EtymOnline says that, in its verb form:

Meaning "way in which something is laid" (lay of the land) first recorded 1819.

The first written piece that Google turned up is a NY Times article from 1892, in which the phrase is also used.

Considering that the American frontier was still open during this time, it is still possible that the term originated because scouts were sent ahead to get the topology of a piece of land before settlers moved in. However, without citing a specific source I can't conclusively say whether or not this is true.

share|improve this answer
    
Found lay of the land from 1800. –  Callithumpian Apr 30 '12 at 4:17

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 30 '12 at 12:42

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.