Grammar Moses: Don't put worms in my mouth

  • Audrey Revell holds earth worms that she and her husband Gary harvested, Friday, May 15, 2009, in Samatra, Fla. The worms are harvested by a method called grunting and sold as fish bait.

    Audrey Revell holds earth worms that she and her husband Gary harvested, Friday, May 15, 2009, in Samatra, Fla. The worms are harvested by a method called grunting and sold as fish bait. Associated Press

Posted10/10/2021 5:30 AM

Homophones happen.

Sometimes they're just annoying. Sometimes, well, you have to chuckle.


I understand the pressures of calling in a big story on deadline. As a young reporter without a portable computing device, I actually called stories in to the copy desk using a notebook, a pen, a pocketful of quarters and a pay phone.

It's nerve-racking.

It's only slightly less nerve-racking these days with a laptop, I imagine.

With the Chicago Bears' commitment to purchase the Arlington Park racetrack property fresh on their minds, some residents attended an Arlington Heights village board meeting Monday night to talk about it.

Our reporter quoted Village President Tom Hayes as saying: "There will be many opportunities over the next year, year and a half, and perhaps two years for our residents and other interested parties to weigh in. No decisions have been made. We don't have any details of the Bears' plan at this point, and so we're waiting with baited breath as well to find out exactly what they're envisioning for this property."

Eagle-eyed readers Bill Murray and Trey Higgens alerted me to our error posthaste.

"Today's DH front page attributes a quote to Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes as saying ' ... we're waiting with baited breath ...' for information about the Bears' plans for the Arlington Park property. Eeewwww!" Murray wrote. "Maybe next time instead of a mouthful of bait, they might try holding their collective bated breath. It would be ever so much nicer to be around."

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Higgens had a similar take.

"In paragraph 2, shouldn't the mayor's comment have been described as 'bated breath' instead of 'baited breath'? That is, unless he is trying to 'lure the Bears in' or 'wriggle out of the deal (like a worm.)'"

Thanks for your contributions, fellas. We fixed it online promptly.

Listen, the last thing we want to do is put worms (let alone words) in the mayor's mouth.

And I get the sense that he in no way wants to wriggle out of this deal.

Show of hands: How many of you knew it was misspelled? And how many of you know the etymology of the phrase?

You can thank Bill Shakespeare for it. He first employed it in a speech by the moneylender Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," with "bated" as an abbreviation of "abated."


"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'?"

The phrase suggests an excited anticipation exhibited -- I assume -- by a shortness of breath.

"The Merchant of Venice" might be one reason I steered clear of a career in finance.

I tease our reporter with the full knowledge that many of us make this mistake. Our sophisticated spell-checker doesn't point out the error, because "baited" is a word.

It's just not the right word in this context.

I fired up Google's Ngram Viewer and compared the use of "bated breath" and "baited breath" in more than two centuries of published books -- books that go through layers of editing.

I was not surprised to find that "baited breath" is becoming a lot more commonplace these days even in that milieu. It's still used far less often than "bated breath," but as these things go, the more commonplace they become, the more accepted they become.

I imagine that by the time I shuffle off this mortal coil, I will do so with "baited breath."

I'm glad my advance directive states that I'm to be cremated, because I find the prospect of having a mouthful of worms unappealing.

OK, Chris, you're off the hook now.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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