Waiting with Bated Breath

By Maeve Maddox

I laughed when I read the following in a film review:

Richard M. Nixon granted British playboy presenter turned journalist David Frost a series of twelve television interviews. This was the first time Nixon had spoken since his resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal and Americans waited with baited breath, longing for the trial they’d been denied by newly president Gerald Ford’s blanket pardon.

What, I wondered, did those Americans use for bait on their breath?

I’m no longer laughing. Apparently a lot of people don’t know that the word is spelled bated in the expression bated breath.

Journalists tend to spell it correctly:

China’s three astronauts are preparing for the nation’s first ever space walk as the country waited with bated breath to see if the manoeuvre, deemed highly risky, would be successful.

With global automotive CEOs and leaders like Mr Carlos Ghosn saying that his company too would like to explore the possibility of manufacturing a similar car, the world’s media too has been waiting with bated breath for the Tata ultra-low cost car.

Shoppers waited with bated breath in November to see what the future of Santa’s beady, winking eye was after he received a makeover.

Many bloggers, on the other hand, tend to go with “baited”

We waited with baited breath, turned our lonely eyes 2 U

It was now Rome who waited with baited breath for the day when an army would sweep down..

“I was waiting with baited breath until I could order my prints. I was then waiting with baited breath until the order was confirmed. I then waited with baited breath until they arrived here in Melbourne, Australia. Now I am waiting with baited breath until they are back from the framing shop and I can hang all three in my house and gaze at them adoringly each time I pass them.

The expression bated breath is another that we owe to Shakespeare:

Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?

Shylock is speaking, with heavy sarcasm, to Antonio in the Merchant of Venice (I,iii). A bondman is a slave or an indentured servant who could be expected to speak in a quiet voice to his masters and betters.

The bated in the expression is from a shortening of the verb abate and, in the form bate, means “to reduce, to lessen in intensity.” The expression under discussion is the only survival of the word in modern English. The person who “speaks with bated breath” is not using full lung power. The person who “waits with bated breath” is holding his breath, or barely breathing.

Abate comes from Old French abattre, “to beat down, cast down. from a Latin origin meaning “to beat.” The word abattoir, a place where cattle are slaughtered, derives from the same source.

In modern usage, abate is used most frequently in a legal context. For example, “noise abatement laws” seek to control sources of excessive noise.

The noun bait, “food put on a hook or trap to lure prey,” is from an Old Norse word. As a verb it means “to put food on a hook or in a trap.”

And yes, there is one context in which “baited breath” would be correct:

Cruel Clever Cat
Sally, having swallowed cheese,
Directs down holes the scented breeze,
Enticing thus with baited breath
Nice mice to an untimely death.
–Geoffrey Taylor, Argosy 1940

Otherwise, it’s bated breath.

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7 Responses to “Waiting with Bated Breath”

  • Brad K.

    Maeve,

    My Chambers dictionary includes “to blunt” in defining bate. Thinking about it, that helps me motivate, for myself, that bated breath would be diminish, quieted, or held for the nonce.

    Thanks!

    (in checking usage of “nonce”, I noticed “nonary”. I have used octal and hexadecimal number systems, and binary, too, in addition to decimal. I even, for one application, used a base-81 number system, though my boss shook his head. Now I know the name for a number system based on nines. Nonary. Not the place where nuns are kept!)

  • Jenn

    THANK you for this, that is one of my pet peeves, people who eat too much fish and have ‘baited’ breath!

  • Charlie

    I too (like Jenn) think of fish-breath when I read baited breath. I realize that the writer may not know there are two spellings, each with their own meaning. I pity whoever is sharing the moment with the one who has the ‘baited breath’. Phew!

  • Håkan Tendell

    Wow! This was the most interesting explanation of a word I didn’t even know existed (I’m from Sweden).

    I guess there are a lot of words you have to look out for so that you don’t use them wrongly.

  • DensityDuck

    It’s important that we not give free rein to our tendency to misuse language.

    (yes, I know. That’s the joke!)

  • Keith

    @DensityDuck: Until I got the joke, I wanted to correct “rein” to “reign”.

    I’ve used “baited breath” before (curled the hairs right off someone’s eyebrows, let me tell you. Nothing like GARLIC on Salmon to accomplish this task…)

    Never knew “bated” existed, but it makes perfect sense. Thank you so much for the in-depth explanation. I love this kind of thing. Languages are my hobby. Root words are fascinating. =)

  • Dani

    Very enlightening and helpful, thank you. What I find hilarious (or concerning, it depends) is the fact that the misuse of “baited breath” is so widely spread that when I did indeed look for “bated breath,” Google suggested that I change it to baited, go figure.

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