Q: Why does “stay an execution” mean stop it, rather than “stay with it” or “stay the course” or “stay put”?
A: Phrases like “stay an execution” or “stay one’s hand” make sense once you know that the original meaning of “stay” was to halt or stop.
“Stay” can be traced by way of Old French back to the Latin verb stare (to stand).
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the earliest meaning of the English verb, recorded in writing around 1440, was “to cease going forward; to stop, halt; to arrest one’s course and stand still.”
That sense of the word is now defunct, but “stay” soon evolved into related meanings that are still in use today.
For example, several uses of “stay” in the sense of stopping an activity emerged in the 16th century. One of these meant to cease, delay, or prevent an action or a process, a usage that’s often found in legal terminology, according to the OED.
The earliest recorded examples are from the papers of King Henry VIII in the 1520s to 1540s. This one dates from 1542-43: “Item that no execucion of any iudgement geuen … be staied or deferred.”
This later example, also cited in the OED, is from Edmund Burke’s last writings on the French Revolution (often called Letters on a Regicide Peace, 1796):
“When a neighbour sees a new erection, in the nature of a nuisance, set up at his door … the judge … has a right to order the work to be staid.”
We also mentioned the phrase “stay one’s hand,” a usage that the OED describes as “somewhat” archaic.
The dictionary says it literally means “to cease or cause to cease from attack,” though it’s chiefly used figuratively in the sense of to restrain someone from doing something.
The OED’s earliest citation is from the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Daniel 4:35): “And none can stay his hand, nor say vnto him, What doest thou?”
In short, “stay” originally meant to stop. The sense of remaining in place or being stationary—today’s more common meaning—evolved in the 16th century from the earlier one.
Here’s an example of the new usage from The Taming of the Shrew, which Shakespeare wrote in the early 1590s: “Your ships are stay’d at Venice.”
And here’s one from Romeo and Juliet, which may have been written around the same time: “Upon a rapier’s point: stay, Tybalt, stay!”
Those three expressions you mentioned—“stay with it,” “stay the course,” and “stay put” showed up in the 19th century.
Before we sign off, a couple of side issues that you might find interesting.
You’ll notice that in his quotation, Edmund Burke used the past participle “staid,” a common spelling of “stayed” in the 16th through 19th centuries.
This is the source of the 16th-century adjective “staid,” which we use for people who are steady or sedate—or, as the OED says, “free from flightiness or caprice.”
Finally, there’s an entirely different verb “stay,” which is Germanic instead of Latin in origin and means to secure by ropes or “stays.”
The source of this verb is the 11th-century noun “stay” (stæg in Old English), originally a thick nautical rope for supporting a mast.
A related word is the 14th-century noun that means a prop or support, as in the stiff whalebone or metal “stays” (early 1600s) that ladies once laced themselves up in.
A more distant relative is “steel,” a Germanic noun that was recorded as far back as 725 in Old English (stæli).
The ancient ancestor of “steel” as well as these two “stays” (the rope and the support) is a prehistoric Germanic base, stagh or stakh (“be firm”), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.