Bated or baited?

18 Feb

Another one of those homophones that trips people up – perhaps more in one direction than the other? I see “with baited breath” a fair bit, but not the opposite error – and in fact it’s all about this one phrase, really, isn’t it.

Baited can be used as an adjective to describe, for example, a fish hook that has had something tempting slotted onto it to lure a fish – “I lowered the baited hook into the water and waited for the bite”. It’s also the past tense of “bait”, to put bait in a trap or on a hook, or to deliberately taunt or annoy someone (or something sentient).

Bated in the sense we’re discussing here only exists in this precise form within this phrase – how interesting! More reason to make sure we keep using it correctly – you know how I get about wanting to preserve the intricacies of our amazing language … So – “with bated breath” means “in great suspense” and comes from a 16th century usage, the past participle of bate (restrain), coming from abate, which we do still use, of course.

Bate, by the way, describes an angry mood in informal British English “ooh, don’t get in a bate with me, I was only teasing”  and is also a falconry term describing when a hawk beats its wings in agitation and flutters off its perch. So now you know.

“I waited with bated breath as he baited his sister that little bit too much … and she eventually flew into a bate”

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


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