June 12, 2001
Gene Dillenburg wrote:
There's a bit of a debate over the meaning of the phrase fish or cut bait. Some feel it's a general exhortation to "get to work": get busy fishing, or get busy preparing bait. Others--and I tend to side with them--feel it means "get serious or get out": get busy fishing, or step aside. This allegedly stems from the practice of cutting one's lines and letting the bait go--"cutting bait"--at the end of the day. The phrase of course has had broad metaphorical use among non-fishermen (myself included). Can you help clarify?
The phrase fish or cut bait is an Americanism dating from the 1800s, first used among fishermen. The Dictionary of Americanisms defines it as 'to decide one way or the other'. The earliest citations in this dictionary refer to legislators making choices as to which way to vote. For example, in 1876, Illinois Congressman Joseph G. Cannon called for a vote in the House of Representatives to adopt a bill legalizing the silver dollar: " Now I want you gentlemen on the other side of the House to 'fish or cut bait.'"
I do think that one of the basic meanings is 'to make a choice; choose a course of action'. But the phrase has also come to mean 'to decide whether to participate in or abandon an activity'. The implication is that you should go with your choice, because it's important to make a contribution. But if you choose to do nothing or if you're not up to the job, you should step aside and give someone else a chance.
In the context of fishing, the literal meaning of fish or cut bait involves making a choice as to which task suits you best. Catching fish and cutting bait are separate activities. In commercial fishing, both tasks are usually considered to be of equal value. Obviously commercial fishing is hard work and can be risky. On the other hand, it requires a certain amount of skill to cut the dead bait in such a way as to make it look natural-there are a variety of cutting styles to make a dead fish move in a suitable manner when cast. (One suggestion I found for catching catfish: cut the head off the bait fish and let the entrails hang out of the neck!). In sport fishing, it's probably easier to while away the hours waiting for the fish to bite, leaving the cutting of bait to the more industrious person. But some sport fishermen think that cutting bait is the more menial task.
Since fish or cut bait has come to include the possibility of abandoning the activity altogether, some have interpreted "cut bait" to mean 'to cut the bait off the fishing line before going home'. This is probably the wrong interpretation, because, as I've described, "cut bait" means 'to cut up dead bait'.
I'm sure many people favor the vulgar synonymous phrase (euphemized as "poop or get off the pot"), which is surprisingly recent, dating from the 1940s.
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