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What Does it Mean to Wait with "Bated Breath"?

An idiom is a turn of phrase that usually doesn't make sense when literally translated.
William Shakespeare used the phrase "bated breath" in his writing.
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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2014
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To wait with "bated breath” is to eagerly anticipate something, to be intensely focused on some future event. The phrase has become a regular part of idiomatic language in most English speaking areas of the world, but even many native English speakers may not recognize its true derivation and origin. In this idiom, the word “bated” describes the breath as held or constrained, in accordance with the idea that intense anticipation often makes someone hold their breath or restrict their breathing.

One of the most interesting things about the phrase “bated breath” is that in its specific idiomatic form, it functions in English as a homophone, part of a pair of words that sound the same but are spelled differently. This has led to some profound confusion about the meaning of the word “bated.” The other form of the word, "baited," refers to the idea of using food or another type of lure to trap or catch certain fish or animals.

In modern times, many of the people who use this phrase may perceive it the wrong way, and when pressed, may also misspell the phrase on paper. The correct form for the popular idiom is “bated breath.” This misunderstanding may have dogged the phrase through the entire duration of its use, but some ideas about the dynamic changes in the English language suggest that instead, modern speakers no longer understand the original intent of using these two words together.

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To get back to the original idea, readers can find the phrase used, for example, in the plays of William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan age. Here, the use of this phrase can be clearly seen and understood as a contraction of “abated breath,” which gives the more modern phrase a more direct meaning. The word “abated” means restricted, limited, or constrained, in keeping with the meaning of the modern idiom.

In modern English, the term bated breath usually refers to immediate or momentary activities, although it can be used with a longer time frame. For example, a finance professional might write “we all waited with bated breath for that morning’s opening bell,” where the activity in question is immediate.

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