Bait, from early essential to enticing allurement

Words about words


Photo: Cheltenham Arts Museum on Flickr
Pages 2-3 of The treatyse of fisshynge with an angle.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word bait comes from the Old Norse words beit (neuter grammatical gender), meaning pasture, and beita (feminine gender), meaning food, especially as put forth to entice prey; hence a cognate of the Old English word bát, food used to lure prey in hunting and fishing.

Bait first appeared in Cursor Mundi (Latin for “Runner of the World”), a Middle English poem of almost 30,000 lines, written anonymously about 1300 CE somewhere in Northern England. The poem is an overview of the then-known history of the world, as described in the Bible and other sources, including the Historia Scholastica, an early printed work that appeared in 1470. Line 16,931 of Cursor Mundi reads “Þe bait apon þe hok.”

The word then appeared in 1496 in a line reading “How ye shall make your baytes brede where ye shall fynde them: and how ye shall kepe theym” in a printed essay entitled The treatyse of fisshynge with an angle, attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, said to be the prioress of the Sopwell nunnery at St. Albans in Hertfordshire, England. If that attribution is accurate, the essay may be regarded to be the first ever book on fishing. In any event, it contains the first known illustrations of poles and hooks as well as of an angler fishing with a rod (Further reading).

Thereafter, the word acquired broader meaning, including the figurative one of being an allurement or temptation. In The Complete English Tradesman of 1745, trader, journalist, and novelist Daniel Defoe, most famed as the author of Robinson Crusoe, observed that “The profits of trade are baits to the avaricious shopkeeper,” a prescient observation that could well describe the debates on business ethics of today.


Further reading: The treatyse of fisshynge with an angle, by Juliana Berners, London, Wynkyn de Worde, 1496, and since 33 other editions, including one published in 2008 by Waking Lion Press of West Valley City, UT, USA, 70-page paperback with original and modern versions of the text and 6 woodcuts, ISBN 978160096446.


This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.