Where does the phrase “to hold at bay” come from and What does it mean?

Those of us who are familiar with Landseer’s painting, “The Stag at Bay,” know the meaning of the phrase “to hold at bay”; when facing a desperate situation, to hold it at a standstill.

Despite the picture, the fact that the dogs are obviously barking or baying is just a chance double meaning of the word “bay.”

Our phrase seems to come instead from the French phrase, tenir a bay, which really means “to hold in a state of suspense or inaction; to hold in abeyance,” or, literally, “to hold agape.”