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Know your English

Know your English

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The ‘bay’ in the expression has nothing to do with the sea. In this context, the word refers to the howling of dogs and wolves. It comes from the French ‘abaiier’ meaning ‘to bark’. During a hunt, sometimes the exhausted prey that the hounds are pursuing makes its last stand by turning around and facing the pack. The confused dogs, instead of rushing towards the animal, stay back and keep barking. By turning around and facing its enemy, the prey succeeds in keeping the dogs at a safe distance — if only, temporarily. Nowadays, the expression ‘to keep/hold someone at bay’ is mostly used to mean to keep someone at arm’s length. You don’t allow the unwanted individual to get too close to you and create problems. The expression can be used with things as well.

At the meeting, Malathy succeeded in keeping her anger at bay.

The terrorists held the soldiers at bay for several days.

What is the difference between a ‘mistake’ and a ‘blunder’?

(K Ganesh, Hosur)

‘Mistake’ is the more common of the two. When you say that you have made a ‘mistake’, it suggests that you have made an error, and you end up with a totally unexpected result. A mistake can be made deliberately or accidentally; it can be minor or major. A ‘blunder’, on the other hand, is usually an error that we make because of carelessness or clumsiness. Dictionaries define it as a ‘careless’ and ‘embarrassing mistake’. It is much more serious than a mistake for you have misjudged someone/something quite badly. The word comes from the Norse ‘blundra’ meaning ‘shutting one’s eyes’.

Increasing taxes just before the elections was a political blunder.

It was a mistake on my part to have invited Naresh to dinner.

Does the word ‘underwhelmed’ exist?

(SK Udaya, Hyderabad)

Yes, it does; it came into the language about seventy years ago, and quite a few dictionaries list it. In terms of meaning, ‘underwhelmed’ is the opposite of ‘overwhelmed’. When you say that something underwhelms you, what you are implying is that it does not in any way excite, impress or interest you. It carries with it a sense of disappointment. One can be ‘underwhelmed’ by people as well.

My kids loved it, but I was underwhelmed by the new Stars Wars movie.

John doesn’t care about cricket. He is underwhelmed by the prospect of meeting Kohli.

How is the word ‘awry’ pronounced?

(R Ananth, Madurai)

The ‘a’ in the first syllable sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘amount’ and ‘china’; the second syllable rhymes with the words ‘dry’, ‘cry’ and ‘fry’. The word is pronounced ‘e-RY’ with the stress on the second syllable. When you say that your plans went awry, what you mean is that things did not go the way you had expected them to.

Whenever things go awry at home, my mother gets blamed.

The word can also be used to mean ‘not in the correct position’.

It was a windy day. The hero’s hat and tie were awry.




“I never make stupid mistakes. Only very, very clever ones.” — John Peel

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