The thief waded through the stream hoping to keep the policemen's dogs at bay.

The captain sailed knowing that the weather would keep the ill-equipped pirates at bay.

What is the source of the idiom "at bay", is it anything to do with baying dogs, or ships in harbour?


Etymonline links this to howling dogs

bay (n.3)

"howl of a dog," early 14c., earlier "howling chorus raised (by hounds) when in contact with the hunted animal," c.1300, from O.Fr. bayer, from PIE base *bai- echoic of howling (cf. Gk. bauzein, L. baubari "to bark," English bow-wow; cf. also bawl).

From the hunting usage comes the transferred sense of "final encounter," and thence, on the notion of putting up an effective defense, at bay. As a verb, "to bark or howl (at)," from late 14c.

An interesting explanation is found on the Word Detective archives

It's that last, "howling dog," sense of "bay" that gave us "at bay." When "bay" first appeared in this sense in English around 1300, it meant the chorus of howling barks of a pack of hunting hounds in hot pursuit of their prey. (This "bay" as "howling bark" also is used in the phrase "baying at the moon," which some dogs lacking access to television are known to do.)

In the final stage of such a grim chase, the hunted animal (fox, raccoon, etc.) will often find itself cornered and turn to face the pursuing pack. If the animal is sufficiently determined (and who wouldn't be?), it may be able to at least temporarily repel the dogs, rendering them able only to stand and howl, thus keeping them "at bay."

As a metaphor for holding off difficulties (and making a perhaps ultimately futile last stand), "to hold at bay" was in use applied to humans and their problems by the 16th century.


I do not dispute the reference to dogs "at bay" while on the hunt. However I would like to suggest a somewhat gruesome alternative interpretation:

Hunting dogs were and are trained to bark both as a way of keeping the prey frantic and as a form of communication to their human keepers. Thus "at bay" may refer to the dog handlers keeping the dogs barking until commanded to cease or attack -- barking dogs are not biting dogs.

Contrary to the inference of fending off an aggressor, the meaning may be the aggressor holding back the dogs until ready to initiate the kill.

  • 1
    Welcome to EL&U. While theories are fine, we expect that answers be definitive, and so theories are best if supported with references or with some kind of evidence, for example, by analogy to a documented etymology. Otherwise, they are merely personal conjecture. I encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center for additional guidance. – choster Nov 2 '16 at 21:52

I thought it may have came from ships bringing soldiers in to fight but land armies were able to hold them off in the surrounding bays by shooting arrows or cannons at them.

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    I would say that this is what is called a Just So etymology. The argument presented in JoseK's post is based on research, so has much more creedence. – Matt E. Эллен Feb 16 '15 at 10:22

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