To wait with bated breath has been a popular English expression for longer than you might think. In fact, it’s one of those expressions that’s been around for so long that modern-day speakers don’t tend to devote a lot of thought to where it comes from or why it’s lasted.
Because of the way we sometimes take these kinds of phrases for granted, we’re prone to conflate spellings and homonyms (similar-sounding words), which in this case leads to the oft-substituted “baited breath.”
So why do we do this? Let’s take a look at the phrase’s origins and uses.
“With” bated breath
Practically the only context in which bated breath appears these days is following “with”—someone is waiting for something with bated breath, as referenced in the examples below.
The phrase evokes a scene of waiting with pronounced nervousness or anticipation: if you’re waiting with bated breath, you’re probably invested in the outcome in some capacity.
Not only are you invested, but you’re also holding your breath. The term bated literally means held, dating back to the late 1500s—in short, bated breath meaning “held breath.”
Baited breath or bated breath?
Because the word bate (to hold) has fallen out of fashion in contemporary English, but the word bait (lure used for fishing) has not, the latter spelling is frequently mistakenly conferred onto the former context.
It’s an honest mistake: a baited hook is waiting for a bite from a fish. It might help to think of yourself as not lying in wait for anything, but rather being held captive in suspense.
The crowd waited with bated breath for the finalists to be announced.
I sat through the last scene of the thriller with bated breath.
She anticipated the arrival of her sister’s plane with bated breath.