This question inspired me to look at the etymology of "get a bye". The earliest mentions in a sporting context that I found while searching Google Books were in the Coursing Calendar, the 1872 edition of which contained this baffling sentence:

Bismarck, who was a favourite for the event, had the misfortune to get a bye of terrific length, and this doubtless lost him the stake, as, hard run as he had been, he led his opponent in the concluding course.

and this one

Duffer ran a bye, which brought the day's sport to a conclusion at half past three.

On the other hand, we also have from the 1867 Coursing Calendar,

Black Topsy had the good luck to get a bye owing to Blue Bock having injured himself yesterday, so much so that his trainer wisely drew him, with an eye to the future.

The first two instances seem to be using "get a bye" in a completely different sense than the modern one, in which it means to sit out a round in a tournament. The third instance, only five years earlier than the other two, seems to be used in the modern sense. What do "get a bye" and "run a bye" mean here, and is this where the modern phrase, "get a bye," comes from?

  • My Concise Oxford dictionary of Etymology makes some rather ambiguous reference to "secondary" events in sports but my google-fu is proving weak today.
    – Wudang
    Nov 19, 2011 at 14:42
  • I'd have thought as an American you'd know better than to delve into the intricacies of cricket scoring and terminology! Even stout Englismen with hearts of oak know better than to dig too deeply into such arcane mysteries! Nov 19, 2011 at 14:43
  • ...but basically there are two different "byes" involved here. One where you pass through to the next round of a tournament because your opponent is a "no-show", and the other where a cricket delivery is potentially discounted because it wasn't correctly bowled (but the batsman may play it and run). Nov 19, 2011 at 14:48
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    Etymologyonline in sporting use, a variant of by (prep). Originally in cricket, "a run scored on a ball that is missed by the wicket-keeper" (1746); later, in other sports, "position of one who is left without a competitor when the rest have drawn pairs" (1883). Nov 19, 2011 at 15:21
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    @PeterShor Aha! I've found the meaning. The dog had a bye in that they passed to the next round as their opponent didn't turn up. However, they still had to run (and possibly kill rabbits) so they weren't rested, and didn't have an unfair advantage over the other competing dogs.
    – Hugo
    Nov 19, 2011 at 17:38

2 Answers 2


In live hare coursing, a bye means to pass to the next round due to a missing opponent, but not before the dog has made a lone run so it doesn't have a rest and an unfair advantage over the others.

The National Coursing Club's glossary says:

Sometimes runners are withdrawn from their courses, either because of absence, injury or weariness. Their opponent still has to run a course – a “bye” – so that it will have run the same number of courses as the next opponent. The dog may run alone or accompanied.

So in the first example above, greyhound Bismarck's opponent had pulled out, meaning he could progress to the next race, but not before having to run a punishing run to "even the playing field".

And in the second example, the day ends with greyhound Duffer running a bye on its own.

And again in the third example, where it's clear the opponent was injured the day before.

We can see bye used a lot in any of these books, and "run [...] bye" in many other coursing books. As can be seen, "get a bye" isn't in itself any kind of special set phrase (at least in these examples), but just some words used together.

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    In the tournaments I've seen for other games and sports, a "bye" is simply advancing to the next round for lack of an opponent, with no obligation to play solitaire while waiting. Nov 20, 2011 at 8:35
  • @Karl: Exactly, this is basically a modified form of that meaning.
    – Hugo
    Nov 20, 2011 at 8:53

The usage of bye illustrated in your examples is still current in dog events. The meaning is made clear in rules #14 and #19 of the Tulsa, OK bird dog club:

14. A handler must attempt to hunt this dog competitively for the full 30 minutes or if a dog is off the course for more than 10 minutes then the judge will stop the brace. A bye dog will be selected by the field marshal and will run the remaining time left of the brace.

19. Any participant which is absence at start of his brace will be allowed ten minutes to show or will be automatically disqualified for that brace and brace mate will run with a bye dog. A bye dog must be selected by the field marshal and will receive no score.

Thus, "Bismarck ... had the misfortune to get a bye of terrific length" means that Bismarck had to fill in for an errant or missing dog, which wore out Bismarck before his or her own race.

Although this makes the meaning clear (and that that meaning is not entirely at odds with the conventional meaning, a pass), it does not resolve the question of why the word is being used in two different, confusable ways.

  • The meaning in live hare coursing is slightly different; Bismarck didn't have to fill in for another dog, but his opponent was injured so he still had to run on his own so he didn't rest and have an unfair advantage over the other dogs. See my answer.
    – Hugo
    Nov 19, 2011 at 17:35

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