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WORDS AND THEIR STORIES - Surprising Origin of 'To Keep at Bay'

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Now, it's time for Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On this program, we explore everyday expressions that we use in conversation. Americans often use the first saying we will talk about today. But many people likely do not know where it comes from.

To keep something at bay means being unable to move closer while attacking or moving toward someone or something. If you keep something at bay, you appear to be in control of the situation. English speakers say either 'keep at bay' or 'hold at bay.'

For example, when protecting their village, the villagers kept the armed attackers at bay through the night. The villagers did not let them come closer.

However, bad people can also hold something at bay. The armed robber held police at bay for about 9 hours before they caught him. So, the robber did not let police get anywhere near him. They didn't catch him until 9 hours later.

In these examples, the things being kept at bay -- the attackers and the police -- are real. You can physically touch them. But you can also use this expression about more intangible things -- ones you can't see or touch.

For example, if you move to a new city you can keep loneliness at bay by joining a club, playing a group sport or taking a class. You can also invite your old friends to come and explore your new city with you. All these things will keep loneliness away from you, or at bay.

You can keep illness at bay by eating healthy food and getting enough sleep and exercise. And I can hold my desire for chocolate at bay by not buying it and keeping it in my house!

English learners and native speakers alike may think the term “at bay” has to do with water, perhaps involving a ship unable to reach the shore. After all, one of the many definitions of 'bay' is a large area of water that is partly surrounded by land.

But language experts will stop them right there. To find out the origin of this expression, let's talk about another definition of 'bay.' It also means to bark with long, drawn-out sounds, as when a dog cries out at the moon.

Abbs, an Afghan Hound, competed at the 2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, 2014. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
Abbs, an Afghan Hound, competed at the 2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, 2014. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Those hounds are baying.

In the 14th century, barking hounds were said to be 'at bay.' When dogs are kept at bay, they are kept from attacking. The Phrase Finder website says the first recorded usage of 'at bay' is in an English story from the year 1330.

Back to modern times, “at bay” is a common expression. You can use it with friends and strangers.

Now, let's hear this expression used at work. Let's say you are the head of a small company that makes toys. Part of your job is to keep open lines of communication between the owner and company employees. Well, when the owner suddenly makes changes to work rules, the employees get angry. And you hear about it. The owner's solution is to throw a party for the employees. You tell her that a party will not keep their anger at bay. They only thing that will improve the situation is fair treatment.

Now, there are other ways to keep something from getting worse. You can also ward off something or stave off something.

To ward off a danger or illness means to prevent it from affecting you or harming you. We often use 'ward off' when talking about mental health, disease or, strangely enough, evil spirits.

For example, she knew that, for her, the best way to ward off a bad mood was to see a happy movie. You eat chicken soup to ward off the common cold. And some people say that you can use garlic to ward off vampires and keep them from sucking your blood.

These two fans of vampire folklore pose in coffins at Dracula's Castle in Romania, 2016.
These two fans of vampire folklore pose in coffins at Dracula's Castle in Romania, 2016.

Staving off something sounds much more official. We use 'stave off' in fairly serious situations, such as ship-wrecked survivors who staved off starvation by eating coconuts for eight months. Here's another example, “The single mother staved off poverty by working three jobs.”

Now, what if you simply want to keep your distance from a person. You don't want to be near them. In this case, you wouldn’t use “ward off” or “stave off” or even “at bay.” What can you use? Well, we have a great expression for keeping distance.

To keep someone at arm's length means you don’t want to be close to that person. Imagine that you are holding your arm straight out in front of you. A person can’t get close. And that’s the point.

Let's say, you meet someone. You don't know her very well, but she seems nice -- seems is the important word here. Slowly over time, you learn more about the woman. And you don't like what you see. She is strange and not in a good way. You catch her in some lies. And she appears to be a trouble-maker. So, you decide to keep her at arm's length. When you don't answer her calls and ignore her emails, she will know you are keeping her at arm’s length.

In this case, you could say you kept her friendship at bay. But you were never friends in the first place. So it sounds more natural to say that you kept her at arm's length.

We here at Learning English have no desire to keep you at bay or at arm’s length. And we certainly don’t want to ward or stave you off! You’re our audience Without you, well, we wouldn’t be here!

I'm Bryan Lynn.

And I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Words in This Story

intangible – adj. not made of physical substance : not able to be touched : not tangible

origin – n. the point or place where something begins or is created : the source or cause of something

boredom – n. the state of being bored

mood – n. an emotional state of mind or feeling

vampire – n. a dead person who leaves the grave at night to bite and suck the blood of living people

coconut – n. a large fruit that has a thick shell with white flesh and liquid inside it and that grows on a palm tree

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