Thursday, January 3, 2008

Cruel Clever Cat by Geoffrey Taylor

Cruel Clever Cat

Sally, having swallowed cheese,
Directs down holes the scented breeze,
Enticing thus with baited breath
Nice mice to an untimely death.
--Geoffrey Taylor

A recent blog post by someone I know showed some confusion about the correct form of the idiom "with bated/baited breath." I probably would have noticed, then ignored, the error, except that she asked if she picked the right spelling. I was about to write a comment explaining the correct form, referencing a bit of etymology to help her remember why it was the right spelling, when I suddenly got the feeling that I'd better check my facts if I was going to play the expert. I'm usually right about these things, since I seem to pay a lot more attention to word spellings and derivations than most people I know (ask me sometime about my Dictionary Game), but I've also found that actually looking things up doesn't lessen one's illusion of omniscience (since the important thing in maintaining that illusion is having a right answer within seconds of the question).

So anyway, I looked it up, and found this site where a guy who answers questions about word and phrase origins (among other things) confirmed that it's related to the verb abate, which means to decrease or stop. So essentially, it's talking about holding your breath, which makes total sense when you add the word waiting to the phrase, rather than using bait to attract something, which, though you do wait after you bait your hook in fishing, doesn't really make any sense when you take the breath into account.

He also sites the first known use (Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice), other famous authors who've used it (Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer), and this clever little poem with its intentional pun.

I am currently waiting with bated breath for the baby to arrive. It's now just a week from the official due date, and as we all know, that means it could come at any time. The baby has gotten so big, she's squishing my lungs, and also making it harder for me to simply move my body around. Consequently, I always feel starved for air, and worry my husband because I end up breathing heavily after doing the simplest tasks.


  1. It bugs me when people say "which begs the question..." when they mean "which invites the question...." To "beg the question" means to include a disguised version of your conclusion as one of your premises. It doesn't mean to suggest a question that might be asked.

    Not that that has anything to do with bated. It's just a usage thing that I get annoys me. Also: people who spell "lose" "loose."

  2. I got into a big (well, big-ish) argument with my co-workers on the BYU pruning crew about the term "mother lode." They kept using it when commenting on the size of loads.

    Ah yes. I remember having a hard time singing, in those late stages of pregnancy. I'd been in the stake choir but begged out of the Christmas concert because I knew I wouldn't be able to do it.

  3. Or when people say "that I get annoys me" instead of "that I get
    annoyed by" or "that annoys me."
    Mike Stay

  4. No, that's a usage thing that get I'm fine with me.

  5. The poet is using a bit of word play with "baited" breath, right? I'm just asking since no one mentioned it (I was expecting Karen to in her commentary), but maybe it was one of those things that's just too obvious to mention...

  6. Karen wrote "this clever little poem with its intentional pun"

  7. All things I miss as a skimmer...

  8. I love the poem. If I can just remember the cat with the breath that smells like cheese I will never again confused bated breath with baited breath. (Well, hardly ever…)

    Thanks for sharing.

    Love, Kathey

  9. The trick is remembering that the cat with baited breath is the WRONG one -- it would be funny if I gave you a sure fire method of making the same mistake for the rest of your life :)

  10. Karen writes...

    "He also sites the first known use"

    I hate to call a fellow word junkie on a mistake, but it must be done: the word should be "cite," as in "he cited an error on her site."

    Great post, though.