LawProse Lesson #204: “Lay of the land” or “lie of the land”?

LawProse Lesson #204: “Lay of the land” or “lie of the land”?

Lay of the land or lie of the land? Literally, the phrase means “the arrangement of an area’s terrain; topography.” Figuratively, it refers to “the facts of a given situation; the current state of affairs.” The phrase is an Americanism dating from the late 18th century. From the beginning, it’s been lay of the land—although as soon as it caught on in England, speakers of British English (BrE), beginning about 1860, started “correcting” the phrase to lie of the land. Today the lie form is about twice as common in British print sources. But in American English (AmE), lay has always been predominant—today by an 8:1 ratio in print sources. It’s true that using lay as a noun might not seem entirely traditional. But in 1934 the venerable Webster’s Second International Dictionary listed lay (n.) with ten different senses, #6 being “position and arrangement; specif., topographical features and situation; as, the lay of the land.” The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1933), completed just a year before Webster’s Second, lists the same sense with illustrative quotations from 1819 {lay of the country} and 1864 {lay of the land}—the latter being from Henry David Thoreau. The British “correction” of the phrase didn’t really take hold in BrE as the established form until the late 1880s. But there’s no reason for Americans to think that the AmE form is inferior. It has a better lineage than the BrE form. Golfers have good and bad lies in the fairway; carpet installers know to roll carpets against the lay of the nap; and hens have productive lays when their eggs are discharged. That’s all the examples we’ll give here: this is a clean column. That’s the linguistic lay of the land.

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