Daily Archives: August 9, 2010


It’s a bad day: you’ve got an eye on a buy (perhaps a nice cane) on ebay, but you want to double-check to make sure that you don’t pay more than you would, say, at the Bay. But time’s slipping away – your internet connection won’t obey, the other bidders are like baying hounds, the auction is like a B-52 about to open the bomb bay… and there’s no way to keep it in abeyance. You feel like you’re ready for the sick bay (or an ambulance!).

Well, at the end of the day, perhaps it wasn’t meant to bey. I mean be. But some of the bay/bey similarities above were meant to be – that is to say, they’re cognate (they have a common origin). And I won’t keep an explanation in abeyance any longer.

Abeyance, which is normally preceded by in (or sometimes into) and typically is seen in held in abeyance or, sometimes, put in abeyance or similar other phrases, originated with an image of an open mouth of expectation – it could be a chick awaiting a worm, or perhaps someone cut off in mid-sentence by a “Hang on for a moment – gotta get this call” (or a “Talk to the hand”): Old French abeance “gape, aspire after” came from a plus late Latin badare “open the mouth wide, gape”.

And that gaping mouth also shows up in bay meaning “an opening in the wall”, whence we get bomb bay (but not Bombay) and sick bay – but apparently not the bay in Hudson’s Bay (whence the Bay) and ebay (originally named after San Francisco Bay), which comes from late Latin baia (though badare may have had an influence). It also seems to be a source of keep at bay or hold at bay, but that has also been influenced by bay as in what hounds do, which is from Old French abai “barking”. The other thing hounds will do if trained – obey – comes from Latin ob “towards” and audire “hear”.

The word abeyance actually looks like, say, an ebay username that might be used by a guy named Abe Yancey (actually, the rare synonym abeyancy would suit even better). The act of saying it may be seen just vaguely to illustrate it in the way the glide in the middle (in the International Phonetic Alphabet, [j], which here is written y) holds the vowel in suspension for a moment, keeping the tip of the tongue from reaching the alveolar ridge (in fact, it makes a sort of triphthong, a three-part vowel, that is often heard in southern US pronunciations of words such as bad and mad). French speakers may also note a resemblance in sound to abeille, “bee”, which is one thing you may want to keep in abeyance for as long as possible.

Oh, and your ebay cane? Well, abeyance is a word you may want to keep in stock, but you can’t always keep stock in abeyance. If the auction gets away from you, I know a guy named Llano who can set you up with a nice cane…