Today I saw a meme on Facebook that showed various phrases used by Shakespeare that have become common idioms in English.
As an English teacher, I’m always pleased to see literary references in popular culture. On the other hand, because I am an English teacher, I want to see literary allusions spelled correctly.
Among the phrases in this particular meme were the words “BAITED BREATH.”
Alas, that phrase is correctly spelled, “BATED BREATH.”
The expression occurs in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
The daily target of anti-Semitism, Shylock responds to a loan request from one of his habitual Gentile tormentors with heavy sarcasm:
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’?
Bate is a shortening of the verb abate. In this quotation it’s used in the past participle form to qualify the noun breath. A bondman is a servant. He would be expected to speak in low respectful tones to his master.
To bate means “to reduce, to lessen in intensity.” A person speaking with “bated breath,” is speaking quietly. Sometimes writers describe someone as “waiting with bated breath.” In that context, the person may be holding his breath or barely breathing.
The expression “bated breath” is the only survival of bate in modern English.
The longer version of the word, abate, comes from Old French abbattre, “to beat down,” from a Latin verb meaning “to beat.” The related noun is abatement.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues noise abatement guidelines to minimize excessive noise. The FAA also has a drug abatement division to monitor and implement drug and alcohol testing of employees. City governments may put in place lead or asbestos abatement policies.
Unless you have a clever reason for spelling it “baited” (like Geoffrey Taylor) be sure to spell the idiom as bated breath.
The Irish poet Geoffrey Taylor (1900—1956) got away with the other spelling in his little poem called “Cruel Clever Cat”:
Sally, having swallowed cheese,
Directs down holes the scented breeze,
Enticing thus with baited breath
Nice mice to an untimely death.