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.
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.The only thing that will improve the situation is fair treatment.
【词汇典故】家丑不可外扬 Home ugliness