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
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