bated breath

Several people have emailed me asking where bated breath comes from. Bate is a verb dating to the beginning of the 14th century meaning to deprive or to lessen; it is a clipped form of abate.

Shakespeare was the first writer we know of to use bated breath, in 1596 in The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.125:

With bated breath, and whispring humblenesse.

Like most of Shakespeare’s alleged coinages, this is probably not an invention of the Bard; his use has simply survived while the writings of earlier and lesser writers have perished.

The term is often seen as baited breath, which is not a bad case of halitosis, but rather a misspelling.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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