Bay (meaning)

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OED gives some nine nouns, six verbs and one adjective written bay. AWE aims to give a quick reference guide to them, particularly to four nouns, the adjective and one of the verbs in reasonably common contemporary use.

  • The principal current meanings are:
    • (OED's meaning n.2) In geographical and nautical contexts, a bay is a wide opening of the sea into the land. Examples in Britain include Bridlington Bay and Robin Hood's Bay (also the name of the village) off Yorkshire, Morecambe Bay off Lancashire, and Lyme Bay off Dorset. The Bay of Biscay, off France and Spain, Table Bay in South Africa, Hudson's Bay in Canada, the Bay of Bengal off India, Poverty Bay in New Zealand and Botany Bay in Australia are international examples. Green Bay (Wisconsin) on Lake Michigan, with an eponymous town and professional American football team, is an example of an inland bay.
    • (OED's meaning n.1) In botanical, horticultural and culinary contexts, a bay tree is the common English name for Laurus nobilis, whose leaves are much used in cooking for their flavour.
      • Because this tree, sacred to the god Apollo, was used to make a crown for the winner of various contests in ancient Greece (hence the Latin name laurus nobilis, 'the noble laurel'), to 'wear the bays', or 'be awarded the bays'', means 'to be honoured', 'to be crowned as victor', 'to receive the prize'. (These are more commonly heard as 'wear the laurels, or 'be awarded the laurels.)
      • Psalm 37 in the Old Testament says "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree". This is sometimes given as "The wicked flourish like a green bay tree."
      • Rosebay is an English name for one of several plants: most commonly in Britain, Nerium oleander, a shrub in the Apocynaceae family and - more fully Rosebay willow herb - Chamerion angustifolium, a herbaceous plant in the Onagraceae family, also known, particularly in North America, as 'fireweed'; and most commonly in America the Rhododendron genus of shrubs in the Ericaceae family.
    • (OED's meaning n.3) In architecture and building contexts, a bay is a unit of a structure; "an opening in a wall; esp[ecially] the space between two columns" OED, 1887. The proportions of the nave of a church may be indicated by its bays (the spaces between consecutive pairs of pillars); in a wooden- or steel-framed house, the bays are the sections between the principal structural supports, often regularly repeated.
      • This sort of bay gives rise to names for certain socialized enclosed spaces, such as a sick-bay, the equivalent of a hospital on a ship (usually a warship); a bomb-bay or the compartment in an aircraft from which bombs may be released on to hostile territory; and a horse-bay is a compartment or 'room' designed for a horse.
    • OED's adjective bay, and n.6, is nowadays almost exclusively used of horses, where it denotes a range of colours, basically reddish brown (with black tail, mane and other points). The noun means 'a horse of this colour'. There are many pubs called 'The Bay Horse'.
      • A cavalry regiment in the British Army, the 2nd Dragoon Guards, was renamed as the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays) in 1767, after it had been widely nicknamed "The Bays", being mounted on bay horses when other cavalry regiments rode black horses - and the Scots Greys, being mounted on grey horses, and known unofficially as 'the Greys' since before 1707, became the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys) in 1877, which was inverted in 1921 to The Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons).
    • The verb 'to bay' is basically used of dogs, particularly large ones and those used for hunting. It means 'to bark with a deep and loud sound'. It is applied figuratively to humans, in a metaphor implying cruel hunfing down of the victim. A mob, or hostile crowd, may be said to be |"baying for the head of" its target, or "baying for blood".
      • To be at bay was initially to be held, usually in some way cornered, by a pursuing pack of hounds. It was sometimes reversed: a cornered deer could, with its antlers, hold the hounds at bay. It has had various figurative meanings: a suspect being interrogated by pollice may be at bay - maybe finally confessing guilt.
  • Some of the obsolete meanings are:
    • The nautical bay was occasionally reversed in its meaning, to mean an encroachment of the land into the sea - a headland. 'To bay (v.5
    • Before it became limited to the fruit of laurus nobilis, and then extended to mean the whole plant, the botanical bay could be applied to any small berry.
    • The original form of the name of the cloth baize was baie, a French word derived from the same root as the equestrian 'bay', from which its original colour may be guessed. When separate baie cloths were bundled together, they were known as baies - the French plural. This word was adopted into English, and through metanalysis was seen as a non-count noun bays (the common spelling until the eighteenth century, when baize replaced it.
      • Because the cloth is now most common on tables for such games as billiards, snooker and pool, baize is sometimes used figuratively to mean those sports. It can also be seen on card tables.
      • In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries particularly, a green baize door separated the servants' quarters from the rest of the house, supposedly because of the cloth's ability to deaden sound and absorb odours.
    • (OED's meaning n.5 and v.4), whose etymology is obscure, had a general sense of 'obstruct', and a particular one of 'damming water with earthworks'.
    • (OED's meaning n.9) was, in the days of widespread hunting, the second branch of a stag's antlers.