Q&A: Bate vs Bait

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're waiting with bated breath…

Q: Hullo.
A: Hi. What's that smell?
Q: Not sure. But I just want to say that I look forward to the Q&A with baited breath every week.
A: Ah okay, that's the smell. Do you have a breath mint?
Q: Excuse me?
A: For your “baited breath”… it reeks of ignorance.
Q: Okay, something fishy is going on. But I'll take the bait. Surely it's correct. After all, to “bait something” on a hook is to dangle it in anticipation or enticement. Yes?
A: Well in fishing, sure. But the main verb meaning is to purposefully taunt or annoy someone. As in “they mentioned Donald's hair in an attempt to bait him”…
Q: So, it's “bated breath”?
A: Yes.
Q: What does that even MEAN?
A: Well, to quote Macquarie Dictionary, “bate” means to lessen or restrain. The related word “abate” is more common these days, but the idiom “bated breath” has endured.
Q: Oh, okay, an idiom. Great. So those things don't even need to make sense.
A: That's right, they're the leather-jacket-wearing rock stars of the grammar world – throwing logic out of their hotel window, shooting fish in barrels and gathering no moss with the rolling stones.
Q: Sigh.
A: To be fair, “bated breath” does hint at lessening your breathing in anticipation of something. So it's not an entirely long bow to draw.
Q: So it's the classic “bait and switch” routine. Even though no one really uses the word “bate” at all, it lives on in “bated breath”.
A: That's right. So next time you're fishing for compliments, leave the actual fish at home and stay at the “bates” motel.
Q: English really is “Psycho” sometimes…

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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