A few days ago, while reviewing a blog post (which, to protect the not-so-innocent, I won’t identify), I came across a phrase I feel sure many readers have seen a time or two: After much waiting with baited breath, …
You know where I’m going, of course. Should the phrase be baited or bated breath?
We can all conjure up images of baited breath — like the one conveyed by the barking sea lion above. And, to be candid, I imagine that most of us, in a close encounter with a friend who’s just consumed a few anchovies, might wish the friend not share the fragrance with us. We might, in fact, wish that our friend would hold his or her breath.
Anchovies or bait?
Which brings me to the word bated. It derives from the word abate — to decrease in intensity, die down or, sometimes, end, finish. As in “after pummeling southern Florida for 10 hours, the hurricane finally abated.”
In other words, bated breath means breath that is briefly held. When swimmers dive to the bottom of the pool looking for a lost ring, we might (in theory if not in practice) say their breath is “bated.” Shakespeare, who introduced the phrase to our language in The Merchant of Venice, might well have done so.
In other words, if you’re holding your breath in anticipation of something, your ability to breathe has been temporarily abated. So to wait with bated breath means to wait with breathing paused … to catch your breath.
To return to the anchovy example, we’d like our friend’s breathing to be briefly abated. Remembering the images in these photos might prevent a bit of embarrassment the next time you want to write the phrase.