The popular expression stay the course means:

  • Hold or persevere to the end, as in: "No, he's not resigning; he's going to stay the course."

  • According the AHD this metaphoric expression, alluding to a horse running an entire race, was first recorded in 1916.

Etymonline says that its origin is earlier:

  • Phrase stay the course is originally (1885) in reference to horses holding out till the end of a race.

But according the The Phrase Finder the expression is probably a sailing metaphor. It doesn't cite a possible date of origin but adds that it was popularised during the 80's in political contexts:

  • This phrase, perhaps based on a sailing metaphor of keeping an unchanged course in navigation, was popularized during the 1980 Presidential campaign. Republicans have helped to popularize the expression.

  • During 1982, according to the Washington Post, Ronald Reagan 'visited 14 states in 10 days of campaigning since Labor Day, carrying his 'stay the course' message." From "Safire's New Political Dictionary" by William Safire (Random House, New York, 1993). And it was a favorite phrase of the elder Bush.

Finally, checking with Ngram, the expression appears to have been used at least from the beginning of the 19th century:


1) Does the set phrase "stay the course" come from the horse races, sailing or other contexts?

2) When was it first used as a metaphor?

3) What could be the reason why the Republicans found the expression so attractive?

  • 1
    thefreedictionary is usually pretty reliable, but in this case the full OED agrees with etymonline's "first citation" date of 1885. On the other hand, it wasn't hard for me to find this usage from 1879, if anyone wants the brownie points from flagging it up to OED. Jan 20, 2016 at 20:30
  • I did get some other hits after restricting Google Books to pre-1885, but I figured the one I linked to was less likely to be an example of misdating (all too common in GB), because it's from "Volume 4" of the magazine Truth. Since GB gives dates for volumes 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 which are all consistent with each other, it's not likely they're all wrong. (Was there any such thing as "The Republicans" back then?) Jan 20, 2016 at 20:46
  • 2
    The earlier uses of "stay the course" have a different meaning, one which makes more sense, since with the current meaning we would expect "stay on the course" or even "stay on course." Older instances use "stay" meaning "stop," as in "stay of execution." The first few examples include "nothing could stay the course of Judas" meaning that Judas was committed to his plan, and "lest interference should stay the course of rebellion." It's interesting that the original meaning is essentially opposite to the contemporary meaning.
    – phoog
    Jan 20, 2016 at 21:33
  • Here's a great example, dated 1838, in case anyone finds the earlier examples I cited to be unclear or ambiguous: "Neither may any one stay the course of waters with any new ponds, ditches, or sluces, but shall permit them to run their course, lest the mills standing upon their streams, or men in their affairs, tanners, diers, and such like, should thereby suffer ..."
    – phoog
    Jan 20, 2016 at 21:37
  • @phoog - interesting. So what happened to the semantics of this expression? What have horse races and sailing to do with it? Are the meaning related? When did it become a metaphor and of what?
    – user66974
    Jan 20, 2016 at 21:42

4 Answers 4


The original idiomatic use of 'stay the course'

As phoog mentions in a comment above, the earliest instances of "stay the course" meant "to halt or temporarily impede a process." Thus, Ben Jonson, Volpone, or The Fox (1605) has this line:

Avocatore 1: Can you plead ought [that is, aught] to stay the course of justice? If you can, speak.

From "Certain Observations touching the two great Offices of the Seneschalsey or High-Stewardship, and High Constableship of England" (1641), in A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts on the Most Entertaining Subjects, volume 5 (1811):

It is to be understood notwithstanding, that none may stop the course of any ordinary running streames within his banks or ditches longer then from the rising to the going down of the sunne. Neither may any one stay the course of waters with any new ponds, ditches, or sluces, but shall permit them to run their course, lest the mills standing upon their streams, or men in their affairs, tanners, diers, and such like, should thereby suffer losse and detriment. If any shall stay them for the filling up of pools, or ponds, they shall be bound to restore such losses as the milners, or others living by the passage of those waters, shall have sustained by the with-holding of them, and waters shall be suffered to run their accustomed course.

Two examples from the early nineteenth century involve ships and their progress through the sea. From Thomas Maurice, Indian Antiquities (1812):

By them [the Phoenicians], the ancient sails, which, in many instances, were made of nothing but hides, sewed together, were exchanged for more flexible ones of linen, and the leather thongs, or cords, used for bracing them and various other purposes, for others of hemp and flax. By them, too, the old clumsy anchors, which sometimes consisted only of a large stone, and sometimes of a log of wood, with a quantity of lead affixed, or a bushel of sand, let down to stay the course of the ship, were displaced for anchors of iron having at fist one, and afterwards two, teeth, or flukes.

And from Richard Pering, A Treatise on the Anchor ... and a Schedule of Proportionate Weights of Anchors (1819):

The most ancient anchors, we are told, were made of stone, and sometimes of a crooked piece of wood, to which lead was attached to make it sink, and to stay the course of the ship. These are not altogether thrown aside by the Chinese, in mooring their junks, even to this day. Afterwards anchors were constructed of iron, and furnished with flukes.

All the pretty horses

The use of "stay the course" in the very different sense of a horse completing a race appears for the first time in Google Books search results going back to 1885, in a citation in Farmer & Henley Slang and Its Analogues, volume 6 (1903):

STAY, ... Verb. (colloquial).—To endure, last out, or persevere : as an athlete in exercise, a horse in racing, an author in public favour. Hence STAYER = anybody or anything capable of holding on for a long time ; STAYING-POWER = capacity for endurance.

  1. D[aily] Tel[egraph], 14 Sep. He won at Lincoln ... and would STAY better than Pizarro. Ibid., 11 Nov. Doubts are also entertained concerning her ability to STAY the course.

By 1902, the phrase "stay the course" seems to have become thoroughly established in horse-racing lingo, but to have broadened to mean something like "compete successfully and finish well. From "The World of Sport," in The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality (August 27, 1902):

The Irish colt, St. Brendan, is doing well in his work. He has good speed, and is certain to stay the course. The men of observation at Newmarket fancy Royal Lancer has a big chance. But he has been more or less under suspicion, and he is hardly likely to stay the course in a strong run race.

'Don't halt the course; hold to it!'

This was followed surprisingly quickly by yet another sense of "stay the course"—one very nearly diametrically opposed to the sense that prevailed between 1600 and the late 1800s: to continue on a particular course of action regardless of unexpected setbacks encountered along the way. The first instance appears to be in "Military Service Bill, Second Reading" (4 May 1916), in The Parliamentary Debates (official Report): House of Commons, third volume of Session 1916 (1916), which rather oddly shifts into that sense of "stay the course" from the racing sense:

Mr. HOLT: ... The policy of the large Army involves the policy of the knockout blow. It means that if you are going to have a large Army you have got to use it at once, and you have got to bring the War to a speedy termination, and the question which we have got to ask ourselves is whether, if we did this, we should be able to stay the course? ... I have always thought this was going to be a long war, and I want to be sure that we can stay the course. It has always seemed to me that when we started this War we were in the position of an athlete who had made the three mile race his special study, and who was suddenly asked to run on a quarter of mile course. The policy of shortening the course is a very dangerous one, and we ought to be quite satisfied that we can stay the course. I do not know what the present Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks of it, but I should have thought that anybody who knows, what is common property, the financial position of our friends, must be perfectly well aware that there is not the remotest chance of our being able to stay the course until the year 1918. We are not likely to stay the course until 1918 at out present rate of expenditure. Let us be satisfied on this subject.

And in Minutes Taken Before the Royal Commission on the Civil Service (1929–31) (31 January 1930) [combined snippets]:

[6674.] ... The principle seems to be this really, that all persons who pass the tests, other than the health tests, should be admitted to the Service, and the only differentiation against bad lives, apart from the sick-leave and so on, is that unless they stay the course they would not get a pension?

—Yes, but you see the difference between temporary personnel and outsiders who would come in under normal open recruitment is that the Departments have had an opportunity of testing the health records of the temporary staff. Those who have been in the service for 7 years would not be retained unless their health records were good.

6675. What you really mean is this: If you have a temporary who has been 7 or 8 years in the Service, it may be that on the first entry the health was unimpeachable. Where such people have spent 7 or 8 years in the Service as temporaries; you are suggesting that in the special circumstances of that case they ought to be regarded as persons who had passed in with a health certificate 7 or 8 years ago, at any rate to this extent, that if they stay the course, they should get a pension?


Here the notion of "stay the course" means (as it seems to have done in the speech about financing World War I) "sticking it out" or "seeing it through"—the modern meaning of the phrase.

But instances of the old usage continue to occur at least as late as 1980. For example, from Maurice Collis, Foreign Mud: Being an Account of the Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830's (1946):

The [Chinese] Central Government was concerned to extirpate the whole traffic, not merely the riverine carriage of opium. His [Captain Elliot's] order for that to cease was only a palliative and one wholly insufficient to stay the course of events. It pleased no one; the Chinese were unsatisfied, and the British merchants felt that a Crown authority, by taking a stand against opium, though only in part, thereby admitted the wrongfulness of the whole, an admission which might be highly embarrassing in the future if, as was rumoured, the [Chinese] Court was determined to go to extremes.

And from Henry Dodwell, The Founder of Modern Egypt: A Study of Muhammad Ali (1980):

Near Tripolitza [in 1821] 3000 Greeks defeated 5000 Turks. The result was the surrender of that place and Navarino. At neither did the insurgents carry out the terms of the capitulation, and at Tripolitza they slaughtered 8000 Muslim men, women, and children. As a matter of course these events were followed bu like massacres of Greeks at Constantinople and elsewhere. The Greek patriarch and four of his bishops were hanged, and it was believed that at least one Greek life was taken for every Muslim that had perished in the Morea. The Shaikh-ul-Islam—the head of the theologians of Constantinople—was removed from his post for his unworthy conduct in seeking to stay the course of this revenge.

Interestingly, China Notes, volumes 14–23, pages 55 & 89 (1979[?]) [combined snippets] uses the phrase twice, in opposing senses, within 35 pages of one another:

But exorcizing the ghost of Mao has been a bitterly fought issue. Teng's drive for efficiency and modernization is cutting to the heart of the system the system Mao crafted in the 1960s and 1970s. This threatens some Chinese, bewilders others, and makes many cadres afraid to implement these bold initiatives until they are certain that the new program will survive its 74-year-old author. Teng believes that only direct repudiation of Mao's legacy of political radicalism will make these administrators confident that Teng's successors on the Politburo will stay the course, yet without their active support, the controversial new program will falter.


We have not realized that the violence of the revolutionary movement is but a reaction and a result of the seen and unseen violence of the present regime, and the reason why this revolutionary movement exists and has spread is that we have not done our duty in the reform of society, but rather have obstructed it and tried to stay the course of history, thus making Christianity into a tool of the reactionary forces in the world today.

The triumph of holding steady

In the United States, the decisive moment when the public embraced the (relatively) new meaning of "stay the course" and abandoned the old one seems to have occurred in 1982. In the off-year Congressional election (a federal election during a year when the Presidency was not being contested) in 1982, President Reagan, two years into his first term in office, made "Stay the Course" his rallying cry for electing Republicans to Congress to support his economic policies, which had run into some turbulence. The last gasp of the old understanding of "stay the course" came in this rather airily delivered note in Verbatim, volume 9 (1982) [combined snippets]:

When President Reagan exhorted Senators and Congressmen to stay the course, the actual meaning of his words was the opposite of his intended meaning. What President Reagan intended to say—and the American public no doubt understood him to mean—was that Congress should remain steady on the course it had set for itself. But what he actually said was that Congress should halt its course. For the transitive verb stay means stop, postpone or delay,' as in the locution to stay the execution.

The intransitive verb stay does carry the meaning President Reagan intended but like its synonym remain, it must be followed by an adverbial, not a direct object. No one would use remain as a transitive verb (e.g., "to remain the course"). To convey his intended meaning, President Reagan would have had to tell Congress to "stay on the course," just as he would have had to say "remain on the course."

But that's the funny thing about idioms, isn't it? In the event, the Verbatim writer was powerless to stay the course of linguistic change, as English speakers chose not to stay the course with the original meaning of "stay the course."

  • Excellent research. It appears that the reference to horse races is behind the current meaning rather than sea sailing, am I correct?
    – user66974
    Jan 21, 2016 at 7:56
  • 1
    @Josh61: Yes, that's how I see it. The role played by Holt's 1916 Parliamentary speech may have been especially important in helping with the transition from "complete the horse race" to "stick with the task you've undertaken, no matter what the results have been so far." Another major impetus to the new understanding may have come from a widely quoted remark in the late 1940s by Winston Churchill about whether the United States could be trusted in the post–World War II period to "stay the course" with its commitments. The idiom's entire evolution seems to have taken place in British English.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 21, 2016 at 8:04

You've answered your own questions (1 & 2) really. The 1885 horse-racing reference appears to be one of the earliest. Some dictionaries (example) also have another definition for stay (it's labelled as 'archaic' in some and 'informal' in others) which means endurance or stamina (staying power). This meaning of the word is probably where the phrase used in horse-racing came from (my speculation).

Your third question is really a matter of opinion or speculation, so I can't answer it objectively. However, I will say that I think it is a misunderstanding of the phrase as used in sailing, because in this context it actually means to change tack.

  • I've always assumed that it was a sailing metaphor, having to do, eg, with maintaining a course heading in stormy weather, even though "easing off" to better approach the swells, etc, might be the more prudent option.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 20, 2016 at 21:03
  • "Stay the course" means "change tack"? Where did this come from? Jan 20, 2016 at 21:04
  • I see. To "stay" in sailing means to either head directly into the wind, so she stops, or to change tack, heading into the wind in the middle of the change. Jan 20, 2016 at 21:09
  • @PeterShor - I don't ever recall hearing "stay" used with that meaning.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 20, 2016 at 22:07
  • I've never heard it either; it's in the OED, though. Jan 20, 2016 at 22:19

1) Does the set phrase "stay the course" come from the horse races, sailing or other contexts?

This Wiki article uses the word "allegedly," which is not a good sign. I can think of no nautical situation other than having to ram the enemy's ship (in which situation the relevance of the ship's actual course is minimal), where maintaining the same course would be regarded as an act of bravery. Quite the opposite sometimes, actually.

The same article mentions, or rather hints at, the character in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus, circa 1588 (some four years prior to the premiere of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) named, simply, Horse-Courser. Oops.

2) When was it first used as a metaphor?

In the second half of the 19th Century.

3) What could be the reason why the Republicans found the expression so attractive?

Politicians (this is hardy limited to the Republicans) are fond of simple, catchy mantras that resemble advertising slogans for the same reason advertising agencies are fond of said slogans: people remember those, and the product they represent, even when they don't like either.

As one British playwright of Irish origin once pointed out (through a character in one of his plays), "Most people don't understand 97% of what their government is doing, and resent the 3% that they do understand," or something to that effect. The same playwright observed in the afterword to a different play that democracy is "the election of the corrupt few by the incompetent many."

It would be nice if actually explaining to the public what needs to be done had any chance of getting a politician elected. Since this is impossible, politicians are forced to have recourse to silly slogans.

  • Your Wikipedia link appears to be broken.
    – phoog
    Jan 20, 2016 at 21:40

Sailing square rigged: Course is the mainsail. Stays are fixed rigging which counteract the pull of the running rigging. Adding additional stays allowed the bending on of more sail.

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