phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Lay of the land

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on May 11, 2006

In Reply to: Lay of the land posted by RRC on May 10, 2006

: : : : lay of the land. What does it mean?

: : : Nothing. However, there is a phrase "the lie of the land", which means (literally) "the shape of the physical landscape" and (figuratively) "the situation"

: : And rightly or wrongly (I think rightly) people have been using "the lay of the land" to mean pretty much the same thing for a long time. Permit me to cite my favorite bedtime reading, the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. lay. "7. a. The way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (esp. said of country); disposition or arrangement with respect to something. (Cf. LIE n.)
: : 1819 Sporting Mag. V. 50 The correctness of their [dogs'] judgment on the lay of the country. 1851 Jrnl. R. Agric. Soc. XII. II. 647 Where the corn has a decided lean in one direction, the machine, if worked against the lay of the straw, meets with the requisite resistance. 1864 THOREAU Maine W. iii. 163, I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land. . " SS

: FWIW, "lay of the land" beats "lie of the land" by almost 10x as many Google hits (over 1,000,000 vs 153,000) (^_^)

I withdraw and apologise. I was over-influenced by my English teacher at school who wouldn't countenance "lay" as a noun. Possibly she in her turn was over-influenced by Fowler, who says sniffily that "'lay' perhaps issued from sailors' and rustic talk, in which the verbs are not kept distinct". In other words, academic British English prejudice. Sorry!