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Friday, September 19, 2014

With bated breath

Faithful readers! I know you wait for your weekly Wordlady fix with bated breath, and indeed one of you has asked about the origin of this phrase.

First of all, be careful with the spelling: the phrase is "bated breath", not "baited breath". "Bait" (something used to tempt or entice, as in a baited hook) comes from an Old Norse word meaning "hunt or chase" and is unrelated.

"Bated breath", for which our first evidence currently comes from Shakespeare (but see this post about the problematic nature of Shakespearean first evidence), comes from a now otherwise defunct verb "bate" meaning "lessen in intensity", which in turn was a shortened form of "abate". "Abate", originally meaning "beat down", came from the French abattre (to beat or cut down), which in turn came from Latin.

Originally, then, bated breath was literally shallow breathing, as one would do if whispering, trying not to reveal oneself, or holding one's breath in anticipation of something momentous. The phrase therefore came to be associated with the word "wait", until "wait with bated breath" came to be an idiom in itself, meaning "be in suspense or anticipate eagerly". 

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1 comment:

  1. Ah ... the same as in a "bated sword" (Hamlet and elsewhere).

    And I see a cartoon of a cat holding a piece of cheese in its mouth crouched in front of a mousehole. The caption (of course), "Waiting with bated breath".


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.