Expression idiomatique en anglais: Keep something at bay

11 avril 2017 - Anglais : ressources

Keep Something at bay


  • Prevent Something or somebody unpleasant from coming too near to one or harming one.


  • The area was hit by a serious epidemic, but luckily, he could keep himself at bay.
  • She fought to keep her unhappiness at bay


Anyhow, back to the phrase itself. It seems plausible that ‘at bay’ is a nautical phrase and that the allusion is to a ship that is anchored in a bay and waiting to enter a port. ‘In the offing’ has pretty much the same meaning. As it turns out, we only need one expression in English for that circumstance and « keep at bay » derives from a completely different place.

The Old French words ‘abbay’ or ‘abai’ mean ‘barking’. These came into English, first as ‘abay’ and later as ‘at bay’. Hounds that were barking were said in the 14th century to be ‘at a bay’. This is recorded in the English romantic story Guy of Warwick, circa 1330:

« Into a forest þat swine him ζede. Into a ficke hegges he gan him hede. þer he stod at a bay. »

(A fat boar went into a forest. He had in a thick hedge. He [the hound] stood there barking.)

In recent times the phrase ‘keep at bay’ has taken on the more general meaning of ‘fend off’. The earliest example that I can find of the modern ‘keep at bay’ (as opposed to ‘at a bay’) and which doesn’t refer directly to hunting with dogs is from The Derby Mercury, February 1759, in a report of England’s war with France.

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

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