Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Fish or cut bait (by DMcC)

 Hello all! I've enlisted some occasional help with Slang-o-rama from the euphonious DMcC (aka Devyn McConachie)—so look for entries such as this one to pop up from time to time! Now, a bit about our assistant slang-o-rama-ist:

Devyn McConachie is a designer-editor-cartoonist, currently lurking about Portland, Oregon. Were it not for her wobbly landlubber legs and love of indoor-living, she would absolutely have taken up a career as a sea-pirate. Landlocked as she is, she instead fills her days with graphic design, animation, illustration, and copy editing.

For more info and to view her visual portfolio, visit this here link. She also has an Etsy shop (arts, hats, and cards) right here
The idiom fish or cut bait actually has a tale of two meanings, depending on how “cut bait” is interpreted. Wikipedia provides a solid explanation for the more literal interpretation:
(1) The expression explores the merits of two options: "Fish", which refers to the act of fishing; or "cut bait", which refers to cutting up pieces of bait into small, usable portions.
[...] The original version of the expression derives from the fishing industry, in which fishermen must literally decide who is to fish, and who is to cut the bait used for fishing. Both the task of fishing, and that of cutting the bait, were considered equally important to the goal of catching fish.
Failure to contribute is not one of the offered alternatives, although "go ashore" and "go overboard" are sometimes offered as clarifying alternatives.
The Cambridge dictionary describes the second, figurative definition, now more widely used:
(2) Fish or cut bait: used to tell someone to take action or to stop saying that they will.
Fans of American idioms may recall similar phrases, such as “put up or shut up,” or the expletive-laden directive ending in “get off the pot.” For a vivid example, imagine:

A lone fisher sits in his boat, casting for fish. Perhaps his name is Santiago, and he’s had exceptionally poor luck. But for the first time in 85 days, at last, his line goes taught: a massive marlin took the bait—and then took old Santiago and his boat with it. Santiago has two choices, then: he can fish (hold on in hopes of catching the marlin), or he can cut bait (cut the line and lose the fish, but save his energy for another catch).

Or you may not have to imagine at all, since Russian artist Aleksandr Petrov created a beautifully animated rendition of this Ernest Hemingway classic, The Old Man and the Sea 

One of the earliest instances of this  “commit or quit” version of fish or cut bait appears in an 1853 legal setting. After a Wisconsin judge ruled on a land holdings case, defendant Caleb Cushing, highly displeased with the result, threatened to have the judge impeached. The judge reportedly responded: “Cushing has commenced a suit in the United States Court. [...] Cushing must either fish or cut bait.” Fish or cut bait lives on in another legal setting: a “fish or cut bait clause” in some retail rental agreements. If a tenant breaks a co-tenancy rule of the lease, which allowed them to pay lower rent, they must either pay rent in full (fish) or end the lease (cut bait). I found the usage here a little murkier to parse.

The face I make when I have to read legal documents.
By Edgar Ravenswood Waite - Waite, Edgar R. (1921) Illustrated Catalogue of the Fishes of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia: G. Hassell & Son, Public Domain,

If you're interested in diving deeper, you can find other takes on the history of  the phrase fish or cut bait, at ReadEx Blog,, and in this post by Jan Freeman in's "The Word" blog. 

Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this semi-literary meanderings, you might want to check out the Twitter account @MobyDickatSea, which quotes random lines from Moby Dick several times a day. I’ve found it adds a delightfully surreal twist to my timeline. And now, it is time for me to cut the line on chasing down this fishy phrase and sail off in search of another Slang-o-Rama tidbit to hang on my hook...



Ann Parker said...

Thank you, Devyn! Great post, and wow, that animated film... If I read right, it won an Academy Award?

Devyn McC. said...

So it did! This one received the 2000 Academy Award for Animated Short Film, plus over a dozen more Best-Of / First-Place awards at various festivals in 1999-2001.