Dear Straight Dope:
I pride myself on my knowledge of word and expression origins — after all, I have acquired most of it from reading your columns/books for over five years. But recently I was stumped, and even after consulting my Straight Dope Reference Library, I still had no answers.
Pray, could you search your reference library (AKA gray matter) and tell me — what is the origin of "bated breath"? I, and many of my associates, had mistakenly thought it was "baited." As a confessed member of the teeming millions, I can do nothing but embrace my ignorance, and turn to you for guidance.
Leslie in Wilmington, DE
SDStaff Terey replies:
What, Leslie, you thought maybe people were chewing on worms?
If your extensive research had involved a dictionary, you would have easily found the word “bate,” meaning:
“To moderate or restrain (a variation of “abate”): to bate one’s enthusiasm, and, “to lessen or diminish,” and “with bated breath – in a state of suspenseful anticipation.”
“Bated breath” has been around a long time. Here’s the first cite in the Oxford English Dictionary: “1596 Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice i. iii. 125 ‘With bated breath, and whispring humblenesse.'”
Maybe someday the Teeming Millions will all invest in a good dictionary, but I won’t bate my breath.
SDStaff Terey, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.