baited by bated breath

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/03/23 21:08 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2006/03/23/559505.aspx


So, it was yesterday, just before 12pm, and I scooted by Cathy's office and asked her if she wanted to do lunch. She did, but she was IM'ing with someone, so I suggested she just ask her if she wanted to come along.

As luck would have it (and contrary to my usual life!) there were now two women who were interested, though our third needed a few minutes to do something. I pointed out that Cathy and I would be waiting with bated breath....

Which got me wondering aloud in front of Cathy's office about whether it was 'bated breath' or 'baited breath', which had several consequences:

In that article, Michael Quinion has some interesting points about the particular problems here -- a classical expression that makes use of a word no longer in use, but with an identically sounding different word in the language.

How long before the only people who are making the correction are British Lit. teachers grading high school essays on Shakespeare? :-)


# Gabe on 24 Mar 2006 2:19 AM:

Hmmm...did you whet your whistle, too?

Can you think of any other common phrase that uses an otherwise obsolete word which sounds like a commonly-used word?

# Michael Dunn_ on 24 Mar 2006 2:24 AM:

A couple other phrases that I often see misused are
"peaked my interest" (should be piqued), and "wet your appetite" (should be whet).  
Store these somewhere mentally for future use ;)

# Phylyp on 24 Mar 2006 3:24 AM:

"Baited" breath would be when we put a worm in our mouth and hope a fish pops in. Ugh.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 24 Mar 2006 10:18 AM:

Gabe -- 'whet your whistle' is really cool since the soundalike also makes sense in its own way, though it comepletely changes the meaning!

Mike -- 'piqued' vs. 'peaked' is another common one.

Phylyp -- <groan>

# Alun Jones on 24 Mar 2006 11:21 AM:

Anyone paying attention would of noticed this kind of thing going on allot, and it shows that many people apparently learn English without ever opening a book to read new words; they only ever here them.  Whether mine is a mute point, or their limited literacy is do to some other cause, is something I've never been able to accurately gage.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 24 Mar 2006 11:26 AM:

Very funny Alun -- although most of those words are still in use. :-)

# Alun Jones on 24 Mar 2006 11:41 AM:

Okay, my last comment was a pane to right, and was probably just as much of a pain to read.

For those of us that are literate (in that we read books), much blame can be put on the reluctance of editors to include apostrophes to indicate where letters have been dropped.

'plane - used to be "airplane" or "aeroplane"
'bated - from "abated"

Michael's point that the correct versions of my fractured words are still in use suggests that "whet" and "abated" are not.  My local cub scout pack know about whetting, and using a whetstone to whet a knife or axe.  As for "abated", I'm pretty sure that most of the people I have told about "bated breath"'s derivation from "abated breath" have immediately seen this as an obvious way to remember the spelling.

English is perhaps the least phonetic of all phonetic languages, largely because of the sheer number of words co-opted from other languages.  Learning English spelling through listening alone is doomed to failure.

Clearly, the examples I chose to malapropriate above are word usages that are in danger of becoming archaic.  My last boss used "should of" in many places, and the frequent mis-spellings of her variable names and function names caused me unceasing delays while trying to find code that I knew existed; as somewhat of a fast reader who reads the shape of words, rather than the individual letters, her constant lack of any kind of consistent spelling or grammar made what would otherwise have been a sprint into a hurdles race, as I had to keep stopping my reading in order to figure out what words she meant.

[I had other issues with that job, but these are the only ones related to this post.]

Tammie on 13 Jun 2008 1:42 AM:

Thank you! I realize that this is an old post of yours but it just settled another grammar war! My Mom and I go rounds debating weather its 'baited' or 'bated', and occasionally 'dammit' or 'damnit', but your article (well, and lets be fair, Shakespeare) proved me, once again, the winner of the grammar war... this time.


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