What Does Keep at Bay Mean?

Keep at Bay Meaning

Definition: Keep someone or something away; Stop someone or something from approaching.

An alternative version of this phrase is hold at bay.

Origin of Keep at Bay

This expression comes from hunting. One of the definitions of bay is to bark. When hunting, many people use dogs, especially in years past.

Sometimes, the dogs will trap the animal, and keep it away by barking. This allows the hunters time to approach and get the animal.

This usage has existed since the 1300s.

Examples of Keep at Bay

keep it at bay Here is an example of a math professor using the expression when a raccoon enters the classroom.

Teacher: Okay, we’re ready to start the test. Put away your phones and any notes.

Student: Excuse me, I hear a weird sound in the ceiling. I think there’s an animal up there.

Teacher: Nice try. You can think of whatever crazy lie you want to try to stop this test from happening, but it won’t work.

(a raccoon falls from the ceiling)

Student: Ahhh! Help!

Teacher: Everyone run outside! I’ll grab a stick to keep it at bay!

Student: Run away!

keep them at bayIn this example, two friends are chatting together about how to avoid someone who annoys them.

Monica: What should we do to keep Penelope from hanging out with us?

Janice: I’m not sure. I’ve tried subtle hints to try to keep her away, like always turning down every invitation she ever gives me.

Monica: Well, that must be too indirect because she still invites herself to join us every chance she gets. We’ll have to do something more obvious to keep her at bay.

Janice: I guess we could just tell her the truth.

Monica: I guess we’ll have to, but it will be an awkward conversation.

More Examples

This excerpt is about fans trying not to cry, even though their favorite players won’t be able to play much longer.

  • Senior nights were particularly difficult for this group, a class of seniors so beloved by their fan bases and coaches that tears were hard to keep at bay. But that’s what it’s like when you stay for four years and become more than simply part of a team; you become part of a program, and a community. –USA Today

The second excerpt is about a boxer who wants to avoid losing.

  • Bradley needed a change, he thought, a smarter approach to keep at bay the danger of Rios’ heavy fists. So he ditched former trainer Joel Diaz and hired Atlas. –Denver Post


The phrase to keep someone or something at bay is an idiom that means to hold someone or something off, or to keep someone or something at a distance.