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At Bay - No Way?

Posted by TheFallen on February 15, 2003

In Reply to: At Bay posted by James Briggs on February 15, 2003

: : : Does any one know the origin and definition of the phrase "at bay"? Thanks in advance for any help.

: : Among several other meanings, the word "bay" is also used to describe a deep barking of dogs, and especially hounds. "At bay" means prevented from advancing or escaping, or kept at distance. It's an old term from the world of hunting - when a dangerous quarry, like a wild boar for example, was finally cornered by a pack of hounds, it would be surrounded and the hounds would all start barking excitedly and aggressively, keeping the unfortunate animal at bay. I'd bet that similar canine behaviour is shown today whenever a fox is forced to go to earth, or a raccoon is treed.

: Bay: To keep danger at bay. In ancient times the bay tree was regarded as having great protective powers. This was due to the fact that it never seemed to be struck by lightning. Both Greeks and Romans wore its leaves as protection during thunder storms in an effort to keep the lightning "at bay". During the great plague of London many citizens did the same, in the hope that they would be spared the disease, but it didn't help.

Sorry to bring the previous poster to bay here, but the alternate explanation given above got me digging through the web. It's definitely true that the bay-tree was considered sacred, a symbol of the sun-god Apollo, and as such was considered to protect against Jupiter's lightning strikes.

The following snippets from Brewer's Phrase & Fable:-

Supposed to be an antidote against lightning, because it was the tree of Apollo. Hence Tiberius and some other of the Roman emperors wore a wreath of bay as an amulet, especially in thunder-storms. (Pliny.)

"Reach the bays - I'll tie a garland here about his head; 'Twill keep my boy from lightning." (Webster - The White Devil.)

However, I don't believe this myth to be the origin of the phrase at all. "Bay" as a noun specifically means the position of being cornered or stopped from proceeding. It features in two phrases, namely "to bring something/someone to bay" and "to hold something/someone at bay". Neither of those phrases suggests anything beneficial to the object of the phrase. The connotation is about prevention and impeding, rather than protection.