I noticed that one of the last comments in The Devil Came Down To Austin contained the phrase waiting with bated breath. It struck me as poetic Old English and I wanted to find out more.
The Word Detective has this to say about bated breath:
The word “bated” is an aphetic, or clipped, form of the word “abated,” and means “lessened or restrained.” In other words, to “wait with bated breath” is to hold your breath while waiting for something to happen. Although “abate” is a fairly common word, virtually the only place you’ll find “bated” these days is in the phrase “with bated breath.”
The word bated is often misspelled as baited. And, I have to confess, when I saw comment #18 in The Devil Came Down To Austin, I had to stop and think twice about the correct way to spell bate (the only current word usage we have of the word bate is bait).
Shakespeare is the first writer known to use it, in The Merchant of Venice: “Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key, / With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, / Say this …”. Nearly three centuries later, Mark Twain employed it in Tom Sawyer: “Every eye fixed itself upon him; with parted lips and bated breath the audience hung upon his words, taking no note of time, rapt in the ghastly fascinations of the tale”.
Quinion also addresses why the word bate is often misspelled:
It’s easy to mock, but there’s a real problem here. Bated and baited sound the same and we no longer use bated (let alone the verb to bate), outside this one set phrase [waiting with bated breath], which has become an idiom. Confusion is almost inevitable. Bated here is a contraction of abated through loss of the unstressed first vowel (a process called aphesis); it has the meaning “reduced, lessened, lowered in force”. So bated breath refers to a state in which you almost stop breathing through terror, awe, extreme anticipation, or anxiety.
So when I’m waiting with bated breath, am I holding on to my breath for dear life? Or have I stopped breathing altogether, clinched in the jaws of terror and awe?
I’ll leave that up to Mark Twain, Shakespeare, the word gods, and you.
Saturday, June 23rd, 2007