A memory trick from Shakespeare's famous moneylender, Shylock.
"Bated" is one of the many words Shakespeare invented (or at least he was the first person to put the word on a piece of paper that survived to this day).
"Bated" is a form of the word "abate," which means “to diminish, beat down, or reduce,” and it’s spelled B-A-T-E-D. So when you’re waiting with bated breath (you can think of that as abated breath), you’re so eager, anxious, excited, or frightened that you’re almost holding your breath. You’re reducing your breath.
Shakespeare first used the phrase "with bated breath" in “The Merchant of Venice.” It's a scene where Shylock, the moneylender, points out the irony of Antonio, the merchant, coming to him for a loan after treating him so poorly in the past. It reads like this:
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”?
That set phrase, "with bated breath," is the only place you’ll hear the word "bated" used these days. Since "bated" is such an archaic word, and most people aren’t used to seeing it, it’s common to see the phrase incorrectly written as "with baited breath.” B-A-I-T-E-D, like baiting a hook in fishing.
There’s an odd logic to the "baited" misunderstanding—you can bait a hook to catch a fish, and people eagerly waiting for something could be tempted to put out metaphorical bait, but why would it be their breath? It wouldn’t. Nobody would rush toward fishy breath. “Baited breath” spelled that way—like fish bait—is wrong.
Your Quick and Dirty Tip is to remember the moneylender Shylock and his abated, held back, breath.
Get more tips like this in 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again:
Bated breath photo from Shutterstock