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Hold at bay and keep at bay

  • Hold at bay and keep at bay are two renditions of an idiom that has been in use since the mid-1700s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as kick the bucket, let the cat out of the bag, cut the mustard, barking up the wrong tree, dime a dozen, let sleeping dogs lie, Achilles heel, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the phrases hold at bay and keep at bay, where they came from and some examples of their use in sentences.


     

    To hold at bay or to keep at bay means to fend off, to prevent something from affecting you or to prevent something from approaching you, to maintain a distance. The word bay has many definitions, which makes the terms hold at bay and keep at bay confusing for some. The explanation is that in these phrases, the word bay refers to the sound of dogs barking, or the sound of other canines barking. For instance, when a hound has cornered a prey animal and is barking at it in order to keep it in place, the hound is said to be at bay. In this situation, the dog is keeping the prey in place by the act of baying. However, in the idioms hold at bay and keep at bay, the idea is that one is in a standoff with the something and is fending it off while under attack. The hope is that the attacker will tire of the predicament and give up before it comes close enough to harm the victim. The word bay to mean barking and howling is derived from the Old French word abbay which means barking. While this meaning of the word bay came into the English language in the mid-1300s, the idioms to hold at bay and to keep at bay came into use in the mid-1700s.

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    Examples

    And, while individual physicians can take steps to better cope with work stress and hold at bay the symptoms of burnout, “meaningful steps to address the crisis and its root causes must be taken at a systemic and institutional level,” the researchers wrote. (Healthcare Informatics)

    Ironically, the Awami League points to the threat of religious majoritarianism and intolerance as the reason for its destruction of the political institutions meant to protect rights and provide order: its actions are necessary, the party claims, in order to hold at bay majoritarian Islamist opposition parties such as the Bangladesh National Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. (The Daily Times)

    Photography, Mr. Fischer told the Gazette Saturday during a reception for his one-man exhibition in the lobby of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, helps keep at bay his lingering, intrusive thoughts and memories of the war. (The Vineyard Gazette)

    While the service was simple, 40 police were still needed to keep at bay crowds gathered outside the house. (The Great Bend Tribune)

    It feels like a dark, spreading stain at the center of my mind, one that I carefully keep at bay with my pill and my therapist and occasional, half-hearted jogging. (Vanity Fair Magazine)


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