What is the difference between abate and bate? How are they used differently? Do they both mean the same thing?

(from the Free Dictionary)

The definition of abate is 'to reduce in amount, degree, or intensity; lessen'

The definition of bate is 'to lessen the force or intensity of; moderate'

Isn't that the same thing?

I know that bate is used in the phrase 'with bated breath'. Is it only commonly used in this phrase and rarely used elsewhere?

What's the difference?

  • How nice! I have another "kangaroo word" to add to my collection. :) english.stackexchange.com/questions/215780/…
    – Deepak
    Dec 20, 2014 at 23:50
  • 2
    Note "bate" is rare, so avoid it. Except in "bated breath". And "bate" used in falconry. But "abate" is common, so use it.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 22, 2021 at 21:55

3 Answers 3


abate is related to bate etymologically.



late Middle English: from Old French batre 'to beat' (see also batter1).



Middle English (in the legal sense): from Old French abatre 'to fell', from a- (from Latin ad 'to, at') + batre 'to beat' (from Latin battere, battuere 'to beat').

The word picture for bate is a hawk beating its wings against the air to fly. This word picture extends metaphorically to its noun definition: "foul mood".



Falconry (Of a hawk) beat the wings in agitation and flutter off the perch:

the hawks bated and immediately the breeze got in their feathers


British informal (dated) An angry mood:

he got into a stinking bate

"Bate" obtains the meaning of "reducing the intensity of a force" as Shakespeare used it in Merchant of Venice. In each of the uses below, bate can reflect the meaning "subdue", although in some of them it could also reflect the original word picture of "beat" or "flutter".

"With bated breath and whispering humbleness,"

"His tedious measures with the unbated fire"

"These griefs and losses have so bated me,"

"And bid the main flood bate his usual height;"

By adding the prefix "a" (a phonetic variant of "ad") to the base of bate we get the picture of beating "at" something or someone.



Make (something) less intense:

nothing abated his crusading zeal

Again, abate obtains the meaning of "reducing the intensity of a harmful force" from the outcome of beating that harmful force back. In fact, "subdue" is the primary connotation of abate.

This is the clear meaning in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, when BASSANIO says,

"You would abate the strength of your displeasure."

So in the end, the common etymology creates common meaning across the board, although bate is rarely used now, except for the phrase "bated breath."

  • 4
    I find this answer confusing and inadequate. You have supplied the meaning (word for word from Oxford Dictionaries) for bate; and the etymology (per the same dictionary) for abate, with no discussion as to how the two are connected. Whilst it is true that the etymology of both words is given by the dictionary as the same, it puzzles me what the connection is between lessening (abate), and the fluttering of a hawk's wings. Personally I have never used the word bate and know nothing much about it. Abate is an everyday term.
    – WS2
    Dec 20, 2014 at 23:53
  • Thanks for pointing that out. This is a work in progress.
    – ScotM
    Dec 21, 2014 at 0:00
  • On its face, the batre 'to beat' in both OED Origin lines is sufficient documentation of the claim above it. "Abate is related to bate etymologically."
    – ScotM
    Dec 21, 2014 at 0:13
  • 1
    OK I accept that they are related etymologically - because the dictionary says so. But I am still mystified as to how they are connected as regards meaning.
    – WS2
    Dec 21, 2014 at 0:18

There is, of course, the old joke about the cat who ate the cheese and waited for the mouse with "baited" breath.

But back to the actual question...

As I'm sure we all know, a huge fraction of our common English phrases originated in Shakespeare. Shakespeare was quite happy to twist and modify words for best effect, and alliteration was a favoured tool ("From forth the fatal loins of these two foes" etc.). So, in the lines quoted above, he chose "bated" as opposed to abated, because it falls better on the ear. In doing so, I suspect he began the use of the phrase "bated breath".

Given that abated is the older form, and that there is a common tendency to shorten words, it seems obvious to me that bate and bated are simply contractions of abate and abated. So, I think one could reasonably argue that bated is an example of aphesis and should actually be written as 'bated, in the same way that, "until", becomes 'til.

  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Aug 15, 2023 at 14:16
  • A person using / recommending 'phone or 'bus (or indeed insisting that Anglophones revert to using Latin) would be one of a tiny minority. Usage determines 'what should be used'. Aug 15, 2023 at 18:34

Scot M gave an exhaustive answer. Here is the simple version: You are correct, they mean basically the same. However, you also guessed correctly that "bate" is nowadays (at least in America) used almost exclusively in "with bated breath", which means "in intense anticipation" figuratively or literally so excited as to refrain even from breathing. As "bate" is so rare, Americans sometimes misspell this idiom as "with baited breath", an amusing eggcorn (what is it baited with—chocolate? To catch what or whom?)

  • Obviously, to bait your breath you eat minnows.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 29, 2016 at 19:57
  • While I'm very often mocking Americans, I have to "defend" them here, as I'm 100% certain that many people, Americans and non-Americans alike, write "baited" instead of "bated". Jun 7, 2023 at 9:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.