Children collect rocks and bottle caps and bits of glass and other treasures. For lack of space in my small bedroom, I collect instead words and phrases and trivia knowledge. Naturally, I misplace most of them at one time or another and usually when they are wanted. My thought in keeping this log is that I might pose some of the ridiculous questions that come to me and answer them in a place I will be able to recall the information as quickly as my internet connection allows. (Does anyone else find it ironic that although the human brain processes information many millions of times faster than supercomputers, I still forget what year I'm in at college? Yeah. Me too.)
Question of the day: Where did the phrase "bated breath" originate?
An example in context: Madame, I await my next homework assignment with bated breath.
Not to be confused with: "baited breath" (J. K. Rowling FAIL)
"bait breath" (co-worker FAIL)
After minimal digging, I was able to discover bated is actually short for abated. Simply defined, abate means to cease or stop. Thus, saying that you're waiting with bated breath infers that you are so overcome with emotion in regard to what you are waiting for, you stopped breathing. I might wait for news of a loved one with bated breath. Interestingly enough, I might also wait for a garbage truck to pass with bated breath for less dramatic reasons.
This also led me to wonder, do we tell people "not to hold their breath" waiting for something as a result of the older aforementioned phrase? Hmm...
According to Harry Oliver's Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Surprising Origins of Everyday Expressions, one of the first known literary uses of the well-known idiom is found in one of my Shakespearean favourites, Merchant of Venice. An excellent verse delivered by the antagonist of the story, Shylock, as he is being asked a boon by one of his enemies reads as follows:
What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?' Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?
(Act 1, Scene 3)
I shall leave you, however, with a much more amusing verse I found in my studies that may be worth memorizing for the sake of humor. (Please note, this is a play on words and the poet Geoffrey Taylor used an intentional misspelling to his witty advantage.)
Cruel, Clever Cat
Sally, having swallowed cheese
Directs down holes the scented breeze
Enticing thus with baited breath
Nice mice to an untimely death.
Heacock, Paul. Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Oliver, Harry. Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Surprising Origins of Everyday Expressions. Penguin Publishers, 2011.
Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. Clichés: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained. MacMillan, 1999.