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Words Jan. 20

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“Told by Broyles to fish or cut bait, Nutt decided the fishing wasn’t all that promising.” Gwen Moritz writes: “I thought ‘fish or cut bait’ meant to do something useful — if you can’t be the leader, then at least lend a hand (by cutting bait for the guy who is fishing). But in this case, a columnist seems to be using it as a synonym for ‘**** or get off the pot.’ What’s your opinion?” I always interpreted fish or cut bait as a euphemism for the stronger expression. Arkansas Times outdoors editor Jim Harris agrees: “That’s the only way I’ve heard it used in these parts. I never thought of it meaning to cut up bait for the fisherman and help him if you aren’t going to fish yourself. I’m not sure what bait you’d really want to cut up, unless you’re fishing for tarpon or shark.” Well, Gwen is famous for her shark ribs and sauerkraut, but I’d decided she was wrong about fish or cut bait after I checked Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases. Partridge says the expression means “Please finish what you’re trying to do, or else stop, so that someone else can try,” and compares it with the “off the pot” version. Then I saw a discussion of fish or cut bait on the Random House web site that said the phrase originated in commercial fishing, where there is indeed much cutting up of dead bait, and in that context it meant “choose one task or the other.” But Random House added that fish or cut bait has also come to mean “to decide whether to participate in or abandon an activity.” I’d say that’s the prevailing meaning today. “Crowder’s book … seems to be the first book-length study on Humphrey. Humphrey only died in 1997 at age 73.” That’s all he did in 1997, he just died? What the writer really wants to emphasize is that Mr. Humphrey died comparatively recently; that is, “Humphrey died only in 1997.” It’s been said that only is the most frequently misplaced of all English words. The best place for it is directly in front of the word or words it’s intended to limit.

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