English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

The term belay is often used to cancel an order in military settings. The definition indicates it just means to cancel. However, would asking a superior (in a civilian private sector employment situation) add an improper tone to the request?

share|improve this question

closed as primarily opinion-based by tchrist, Drew, andy256, Chenmunka, Matt Gutting Jan 8 '15 at 15:53

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I do not think we can answer this question. Each person's situation with regard to their superiors is different. It depends entirely on how relaxed an environment you are in as to if you can tell you superior to do things. – Matt E. Эллен Mar 12 '12 at 13:20
I was actually requesting them not to do something I previously asked them to do, belaying my original request. The question was not about asking about word usage. Obviously asking my superior to do something depends on the organization and the request. – Justin Dearing Mar 12 '12 at 14:01
No - you can't grammatically "belay a request to a superior". You can "pass a request [on] up to a superior", for example, but OP's proposed usage of belaying to another person isn't valid. – FumbleFingers Mar 12 '12 at 15:01
Are you by any chance a rock-climbing enthusiast? – Kris Jul 2 '13 at 10:51
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about office etiquette. – Matt Gutting Jan 8 '15 at 15:53
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Belay is commonly used in nautical settings (not military) to mean "stop." Any sailor might use it in this context; it is not limited to belaying orders.

Using it in a different setting might come across as endearing, pert, obnoxious, or charming, depending on your relationship with the superior with whom you are speaking, and the manner in which you use it.

However, the word belay in and of itself is not rude or offensive.

share|improve this answer
You can belay, rappelling down the outside of the building with the request in hand, or you can use the stairs: both strike me as proper, but the former seems more daring. – fortunate1 Mar 12 '12 at 14:00
I don't believe I've ever heard anyone use belay in that fashion in the U.S. I also don't think that, if I were to do so, anybody would understand what I meant. There are other meanings to belay, as pointed out, and which few know; but few know any of them. I suspect its unlikeliness would make most people think they'd heard relay instead, which could contribute to misunderstanding. Anything important enough to be belayed should be belayed with pipes and sideboys; actual commands have to be clear and precise. – John Lawler Mar 12 '12 at 15:10
@JohnLawler I've seen a similar usage to fortunate1's in the US: when a rock/etc climbers ascent/decent was controlled by someone above working the rope instead of the climber controlling his motion directly. – Dan Neely Mar 12 '12 at 15:55
@JohnLawler which usage have you not heard? – user14070 Mar 12 '12 at 19:06
The one that means to stop. – John Lawler Mar 12 '12 at 20:15

There is no situation in the US Military where "belay that order" is appropriate. In a situation where one would like a sailor to disregard an order the correct statement is "as you were." While colloquially "belay that order" makes grammatical/logical sense, it is simply not correct.

However, in civilian life, it is not technically inappropriate. It may sound pedantic, like saying indubitably instead of yes, but it is not improper.

With that being said, who knows what your boss may find offensive, so I would stay away from the phrase.

share|improve this answer
The first sentence is factually incorrect. It was a commonly used phrase in the US Marine Corps both times I served (88-92 and again 05-06). – Tracy Cramer Jun 29 at 21:57

In the sea services (Navy, Marines, Coast Guard), "belay" means to ignore a foregoing statement or order that a person has given. If it's an order, only the person giving the order or someone above him or her can belay an order. One would never use the term "belay" when attempting to persuade a superior to cancel their statement or order.

share|improve this answer
To clarify, I made a request to my superior, and then I wished to rescind that request. – Justin Dearing Aug 21 '13 at 14:08

In the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, and all other branches of naval service, the word "Belay" is used as a manner to disregard and to rescind, e.g.:

  • "Corporal, I need you and five Marines to drop what you are doing, and get over to the barracks and police call the beer-garden. I want all of those cigarette butts gone and stray beer cans gone. If it doesn't grow, it goes."
    "-- Uh, actually, belay that. Staff Sergeant has second squad on it already. You guys sweep the cat-walks."

  • "Hernandez, you see that flashing over that dune? Looks like muzzle flashes, let me glass it and see what it is, I can't tell what it is. Light it up with the 240."
    "Belay that! Cease fire, cease fire!"

share|improve this answer

Mskfisher used the term correctly. Usage and branch of service the term is most utilized by i.e.

Lieutenant, 'Light 'em up!!'
Sgt Mgr, 'Belay that, they're friendlies'

share|improve this answer
I can't work out what you mean by "Usage and branch of service the term is most utilized by". Could you maybe expand on that, ideally in complete sentences rather than note-form? Thanks. – David Richerby Jan 7 '15 at 11:56
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. – Mysti Jan 7 '15 at 16:57

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