Q: My English teacher in the ’60s taught me the difference between “I lie” and “I lay.” It now makes my blood curdle to hear people refer to “a lay down” or “the lay of the land.”
A: We’ve written several times on the blog about the verbs “lie” and “lay,” including a post in 2011. However, the nouns “lie” and “lay” are a different species altogether. In the usages you mention, they’re interchangeable.
Both “lie of the land” and “lay of the land” are correct noun phrases meaning how something lies or is laid. And both a “lay-down” and a “lie-down” are correct as nouns meaning a nap or a rest.
You don’t have to take our word for this. The Oxford English Dictionary says those expressions—both versions of them—represent legitimate uses of the nouns “lie” and “lay.”
We’ll discuss the longer expression first. “Lay of the land,” as we briefly mentioned in a 2006 post, is the more common version in American English, “lie of the land” in British English.
All five of the standard American dictionaries we regularly consult include “lay of the land”; two of them also list “lie of the land,” labeling it a British variant. The five standard British dictionaries we use all include both versions, with four of them labeling “lay of the land” an American usage.
In either form, this is a centuries-old idiom that can refer to the topography of a landscape (the literal sense) or to a condition or state of affairs (the figurative sense).
The “lie” in this expression, the OED says, means the “manner of lying; direction or position in which something lies; direction and amount of slope or inclination.” Used figuratively, the dictionary says, it means “the state, position, or aspect (of affairs, etc.).”
And the “lay” in the expression is defined as “the way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (esp. said of country),” or the “disposition or arrangement with respect to something.”
The dictionary’s earliest recorded example, from the late 17th century, shows the “lie” version (spelled “lye” here): “Nott to alter the proper lye of the Land.” (Minutes of a meeting in Hartford on April 4, 1697, allowing a “Sider house” to continue operating on town property as long as the land was not further altered. From the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.)
The expression doesn’t appear again until the mid-19th century—this time with “lay”—in a work of Henry David Thoreau: “I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land.” (From “The Allagash and East Branch,” an essay probably written before January 1858 and published posthumously in 1864 as part of The Maine Woods.)
In subsequent uses, both versions appear, according to OED citations:
“Washington, from the lie of the land, can hardly have been said to be centrical at any time” (a comment on the nation’s capital in Anthony Trollope’s North America, 1862).
“The frequent lay of the land in the tea districts … is alternate stretches of low land suitable for rice, and high land fitted for tea” (The Tea Industry in India, by an English planter, Samuel Baildon, 1882).
“The corn rows follow the lay of the land on the contour and the land is strip-farmed” (The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 8, 1943).
“To show the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details” (The Story of Art, a history by Ernst Hans Gombrich, 1950).
Similarly, both “lay-down” and “lie-down” are legitimate nouns. The OED defines a “lay-down” as “an act of lying down, a rest,” and the equivalent of a “lie-down,” which in turn is defined as “a rest (on a bed, etc.).”
The dictionary’s earliest example is a “lie” version, from the mid-19th century: “I should be very glad of a lie down but cannot” (from a letter written Oct. 13, 1840, by Harriett Mozley and published in Newman Family Letters, 1962, edited by Dorothea Mozley).
The earliest “lay” example is from the late 19th century: “Nothing but ‘dub’ fights by novices, with now and then a deliberate ‘lay down’ ” (National Police Gazette, May 26, 1897).
Here are examples of each, used in the sense of a brief nap:
“Yes, Aggie, you go an’ ’ave a lie-down, see, and you’ll be all right” (Four One-Act Plays, by St. John Ervine, 1928).
“What you want is a nice lay-down and a cupper tea” (Busman’s Honeymoon, a 1937 mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers).