Bated Breath

Meaning of “Bated Breath”

The phrase ‘bated breath’ means to hold one’s breath in fear or hesitance. It also means to suppress one’s feelings, fear, or suspense for a certain period.

Origin of “Bated Breath”

The phrase ‘bated breath’ seems to have been used by William Shakespeare for the first time in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in 1596. The major character, Shylock says;

“Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness.”

It is interesting to note that the phrase is interchangeably used with ‘baited breath’ in almost the same meanings.

Examples in Literature

Example #1

Waiting with Bated Breath by Beth Bailey

Waiting with bated breath
Butterflies flit and fall like winged acrobats
The scent of yellow roses permeates the air
September’s long shadow creeps….creeps…creeps
Across my front door
How long will it be?
I can’t think- your voice, your hands, your lips-
Every thought consumed with you
And it feels like Heaven
And it feels like Hell
But most of all, it feels like Love

This short poem is about love and waiting for it with anxiety. The wait is compared to the butterflies wait for the flowers to blossom. The poet also talks about September and the long autumn and causing sadness. The speaker in the poem is confused and wonders if he is blessed or cursed. He doesn’t understand his feelings and assumes it is love. He uses the phrase ‘bated breath’ to expresses his anxiety, panic, and confusion.

Example #2

Bated Breath by Tinashe

What if I told you that it was all in vain?
Would it still hurt you?
Would you still feel the same?
Said its impossible-possible
So impossible

But you’re still waiting on the moment breath is bated
I wish I could hold you, I can’t take it
Tell you all my secrets
I’m too faded
Praying that tomorrow I’ll be braver
Maybe I can tell you, maybe we can do this

These above lines from the song present the condition of the singer as if he is in a fix. He compares his confusion with the suspense that he cannot shed off. The singer has twisted the original phrase into ‘breath is bated’. The singer desires that if he had been able, he would have told all his secrets to the beloved, but it is again stuck in the impossibility. The meaning of the phrase expresses the anxiety to propose his love.

Example #3

From The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

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’?

These lines are spoken by Shylock, the Jew. He tells about his money lending business and how he treats his debtors. He uses the phrase in “bated breath” to describe his debtors who bow low and pay homage to them when they come to borrow. Later, they insult him, complain and delay to return the debts. He expresses the irony of people who bow before him while asking the money and insult him while returning it.

Example #4

Infinite Words: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Publishing by Zane

If you are trying to say that a character changed their ways, do not say that they made a 360-degree turn. That puts them right back where they started. It should be a 180-degree turn.

There is no such thing as baited breath but there is such thing as bated breath. Refrain from using the word literally unless it is an actual fact. In other words, do not say, “I literally felt like I was dying.”

This extract from the writing guide by Zane explains different things including the phrase. According to him, ‘baited breath’ does not exist. Instead, a writer should use ‘bated breath’ though various respectable authors from the United Kingdom have used “baited breath.” He compares the usage of the ‘baited breath’ to another wrong usage of a sentence, ‘I literally felt like I was dying’.

Examples in Sentences as Literary Devices

Example #1: “My Uncle Keith is coming from Korea tomorrow. I am going to wait with bated breath to see what he brings me from there.”

Example #2: “When the letters arrived, all the army would be with bated breath to read the notes from their loved ones.”

Example #3: “Monica was waiting with bated breath for guests to leave. She just wanted to watch her favorite TV show as soon as they left.

Example #4: “Every scientist awaits with bated breath to see the final result of their experiments. No one wants to fail. You just have to hope the bad scientists don’t win.”

Example #5: “When Granny Joanne told old folk tales, everyone listened to her with bated breaths. Her stories have twists and turns and a moral too.