Q&A: Bate vs Bait

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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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