Q: In a New Yorker article about Google, Nicholas Lemann writes: “The company is built to launch new products very quickly and to cut bait right away if they aren’t working.” Is this use of “cut bait” fishy? It seems to imply merely abandoning something. But I always thought it meant, metaphorically, something like “put up or shut up.”
A: You seem to think that this use of “cut bait” in the New Yorker has strayed too far from the original sense of the full expression, “fish or cut bait.”
Should Lemann have used an expression like “cut its losses”? Or has the meaning of “cut bait” changed? Before answering, let’s look at the history of “fish or cut bait.”
Interestingly, both the literal and the figurative uses of the phrase showed up at about the same time in 19th-century American writing, as far as we can tell from searches of news and literary databases.
In fact the earliest example we’ve found uses the expression in its figurative sense, meaning more or less what you suggest, “put up or shut up.”
However, we expect that even earlier examples of the usage, both literal and figurative, will emerge as more books and periodicals are digitized.
The earliest example we’ve found is this figurative version from the July 31, 1837, issue of the Oneida Observer in Albany, NY: “Politicians cannot shilli-shalli along now. They must either ‘fish, cut bait, or go ashore.’ ”
We found another early metaphorical example in a letter written in 1846 by a Wisconsin judge, Levi Hubbell, who said the wife in a divorce case “will neither fish nor cut bait”— that is, she would neither live with her husband nor agree to divorce him.
On a literal level, the phase means something like this: If you don’t intend to fish, go cut up bait and let someone else do the fishing.
The first example we’ve found for the literal usage is from a letter published in the July 25, 1845, issue of the Boston Courier. The writer joked that “Antihookarians,” people opposed to using hooks to catch fish, “would neither fish nor cut bait.”
This more straightforward example of the literal meaning comes from Joseph Warren Smith’s book Gleanings From the Sea (1887). In describing how large fishing trawlers operate in the waters around Boston, Smith wrote:
“The men are never idle. All either fish or cut bait, and, soon as free from any special toil, over go their lines to see what response may come from below.”
It’s clear that in the 19th century, “fish or cut bait” had two either/or meanings. Literally, it meant do one fishing job or the other. Figuratively, it meant act or let someone else act in your place.
So is there something fishy about the use of “cut bait” in reference to Google’s abandoning unsuccessful products?
Well, the newer usage strikes us as awkward, but the “fish or cut bait” entries in some standard dictionaries seem to support it.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “fish or cut bait” is an informal idiom meaning “to proceed with an activity or abandon it altogether.”
And Oxford Dictionaries online says it’s an “informal North American” expression meaning to “stop vacillating and act on something or disengage from it.”
Finally, we’ve seen a lot of speculation that “cut bait” originally meant to cut your fishing line—hook, bait, and all. We haven’t found a shred of evidence to support this theory. Toss it back.