Without this word, climbing would pretty much all be free-soloing. Since most of us are not Alex Honnold or Steph Davis, we’re going to dive into its history to give this word all the respect it deserves. (Full disclosure: I’m biased because belayers are my absolute favorite.)
Where Belay Came From
For a long time (actually, up until I began research for this post), I thought “belay” was French-based like many other climbing terms, perhaps it because of that lovely, long-syllabled “a” at the end.
The word, usually used in climbing to mean “Secure (a climber) with a belayed rope” (source), is actually of Old English origin. That means its roots go back as far as the 11th century (think Vikings, Gregorian chant, and the Norman conquest), though its first documented usage occurred in the 1540s (think Henry VIII, religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants, and the very beginning of the British Renaissance) (source).
The Nitty-Gritty: Etymology
The Old English root came from “bilecgan, which, among other senses, meant ‘to lay a thing about’ (with other objects), from be– + lecgan ‘to lay’” (source). That could be both literally surrounding something with other objects, like piling rocks around a tree, or metaphorically, like surrounding a city with soldiers for a siege (source).
Even though it’s the smallest part of the word, we need to stop on the “be-” prefix for a moment. You’ll find it on a ton of words that have Old English roots, and it can transform just about any word to add meanings like “to make or treat as,” “wearing or covered with,” and “to cause something to be” (source). That’s we can enjoy words like befriend, bejewel, besmirch (which is so delicious to say out loud), and invent new ones like betaco.
The Word Evolves
Before belay was used for climbing, the word found its home on ships and boats, where it was commonly used to talk about tying or fastening things. (Also in Star Trek, to dramatic effect.) I suspect but can’t confirm that a lot of the rope vocabulary used in climbing has roots in the nautical world. Because, you know, of all the ropes and things.
And so for many hundreds of years before folks thought to pursue mountaineering as a sport, the word got plenty of mileage on ships. Then, according to the Dictionary of Mountaineering, “belay” was officially recorded to mean “to tie oneself, as a stationary member of a roped party, to a firm rock projection…or to a piton, etc…in order to secure oneself and to afford a safeguard to the moving climber” (source). (Side note: I about peed my pants when I learned that a mountaineering dictionary exists, even if it’s from 1957. I know what my next birthday request will be.)
Back in 1957, it looks like “belay” covered a fairly narrow range of ways to protect a climber. Today, “belay” describes a ton of different actions and systems that the writers of the first dictionary couldn’t have dreamed about, like the auto-belay system of a climbing gym or a device like a GriGri or ATC. What’s neat is that the hip belays and terrain belays mentioned in 1957 are still in active use, especially for getting through tricky 3rd and 4th class terrain. Instead of abandoning older practices, we’ve gotten to see them evolve.
How to use “belay” like a pro
Now that you know where the word comes from, you’re ready to use it like a pro. Here are a few examples:
- “On belay!” “Belay off!”
- “I’ll belay you.”
*Note: It’s polite to offer to belay other people, especially if you’re with a new group. Belaying well and at least as much as you climb is a good way to get invited back. Don’t be the person who brags about climbing the most pitches and whined about needing rest between every pitch rather than belay.
These are used primarily in casual situations or times when communication is easy and not hindered by things like the wind or other loud noises.
- “Will you give me a catch?” If someone asks you this, don’t just hold your arms out expecting some kind of weird trust fall. They actually mean belay.
- “Thanks for the catch.” Make sure to thank the person who literally just held your life in their hands.
- If you want more details from an authority or are curious about diving more deeply into climbing vocab, the American Alpine Institute has a concise and handy write-up.
- For more on how using the “On belay/Belay off” system was invented, check out this incredibly long but interesting forum on Mountain Project.
- Word Stores: Crux