The Meaning of At Bay: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever wondered what the meaning of the phrase at bay is? This article will give you all of the knowledge you need on the phrase at bay, including its definition from the dictionary, thesaurus synonyms and antonyms, etymology, sentence examples, and more!

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What does the phrase at bay mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Dictionary and other dictionary apps, the idiom at bay is used to describe something that is in the position of being unable to move closer while the person or thing is trying to attack or approach someone. This could be used in a literal or figurative sense. Someone might keep a creepy man at bay in a bar by asking the bartender to cut him off. Someone could also keep an illness at bay by taking vitamin C pills and wearing a mask.

The phrase at bay is very common in the English language.  It is often used to describe things that are figurative, or things that one wants to keep away. Someone would want to keep illness, accident, failure, and numerous other things at bay. This is a very versatile term that can be used in a variety of different situations. 

This is different from the verb bay, or baying. According to Merriam-Webster, to bay is to cry out or bark at, which is very different from keeping something at bay. However, a dog who bays might keep predators at bay! This is also different from a bay window, which is a type of window that protrudes outward from a wall and often has a seat or shelf inside. These windows are called such because they form a bay, according to Merriam-Webster

What is the origin of the phrase at bay?

According to Phrases, it is plausible that the phrase at bay is nautical in origin. This phrase could allude to the face that a ship is anchored in a bay and not yet in a port, which would imply that it is being held off. This could also come from the Old French abbay or abai, meaning “barking.” This phrase was originally said as abay in English, and later transformed into at bay. In the late 1500s, this phrase was used to describe barking dogs. It was first recorded in the 1330 story Guy of Warwick:

Into a forest þat swine him ȝede. Into a ficke hegges he gan him hede. Þer he stod at a bay.

The phrase began to take on a more general use to mean a standoff with a barking dog, and later, to mean fend off or ward off. The earliest example of this modern usage comes from The Derby Mercury, which was published in 1759.

We have seen the French kept at bay for the whole campaign, and they are gone into their winter quarters.

What are synonyms and antonyms for the phrase at bay?

There are many different words and phrases that one can use in place of the idiom at bay. There are a variety of different ways one can describe keeping something away, and these are called synonyms. A synonym is a word or phrase that has the same definition as a given word or phrase. Someone might choose to use a synonym to avoid repeating themselves or they could choose to use a synonym to try and expand their vocabulary and incorporate new words. The below list of synonyms for the idiom at bay is provided by Thesaurus

  • keep off
  • foil
  • prevent
  • stave off
  • check
  • frustrate
  • turn aside
  • rebuff
  • preclude
  • turn
  • obviate
  • block
  • keep at arm’s length
  • avert
  • thwart
  • rule out
  • deflect
  • parry
  • repel
  • stop
  • hold off
  • fend
  • beat off
  • stymie
  • forestall
  • avoid
  • repulse
  • ward off
  • ward
  • interrupt
  • turn away
  • halt
  • divert
  • deter
  • rebut

If someone wishes to use an idiom that is the opposite of the phrase at bay, they could use an antonym. An antonym is any word or phrase that has the opposite definition as a given word or phrase. This list of antonyms for the phrase at bay is also provided by Thesaurus

  • contain
  • clinch
  • bottle up
  • maintain
  • retain
  • enclose
  • seize
  • cork up
  • imprison
  • embrace
  • trammel
  • grip
  • put a lock on
  • stay put
  • cleave
  • catch
  • bind
  • hug
  • freeze to
  • withhold
  • wield
  • vise
  • press
  • detain
  • clutch
  • squeeze
  • have
  • hold
  • keep
  • cradle
  • fondle
  • take
  • clasp
  • stick
  • possess
  • nourish
  • hang on
  • clench
  • wring
  • cling
  • confine
  • carry
  • secure
  • own
  • enjoy
  • lock up
  • handle
  • arrest
  • adhere
  • not let go
  • keep close
  • restrain
  • occupy
  • palm
  • cherish
  • check

How can the phrase at bay be used in a sentence?

The phrase at bay can be used both literally and figuratively to describe things that are being fended off or warded off. In this example, the term will be used figuratively. Flu season is right around the corner, and two school nurses are describing action plans for how to prepare the school.

School Nurse 1: I think we should ask the administration for a budget for little care packages to send home with every student. We could fill them with things that will keep the flu at bay.

School Nurse 2: Great idea! What would we fill them with?

School Nurse 1: We could give everyone a little mask and hand sanitizer, and we could also include fun stuff like vitamin c powder that they can put into a drink or throat lozenges. It would be cost effective and safe!

Overall, the phrase at bay means that something is in the position of being kept at a distance to prevent attack or approach. This term can be used both literally and figuratively to describe things that are being kept away.