Grammar

What Do We Mean by ‘Fish or Cut Bait’?

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Years ago, my television station worked with a consultant who loved to say it was time to ‘fish or cut bait.’ Here’s what it really means.

I have spent time fishing. I did not, while fishing, cut bait. But that does not mean I enjoyed the fishing trip itself.

I’ve also worked with a handful of television news consultants in my time. Most of them have been very good to work with. They helped the station strategize and hone the presentation to better serve viewers. TV stations hire consultants, after all, to bring in input from “third parties.” Those third parties bring a great deal of research with them. They use that research to find a station’s strengths and weaknesses and opportunities for growth.

One of these days, I might go into more detail about that, but I doubt if most people would find it that interesting.

A consultant doesn’t give orders. He or she makes recommendations based on data. The television station’s management team can accept or reject that advice. But if they reject it, you begin to wonder what they’re paying the consultant to do.

One of the early consultants I worked with love to say it was time to “fish or cut bait.”

We call phrases like that idioms. They have meanings but the meaning may not necessarily seem to directly apply to a given situation, so you have to know the meaning behind the idiom for it to make sense.

Dictionary.com defines the phrase this way: “Make a decision now; stop hesitating.”

In one sense, yes, that sums up about 75% of the message.

But there’s a bit more to it than that.

The phrase seems to have entered the vernacular in the 19th century. One of the earliest known examples came in an 1853 court case involving land ownership.

Writer Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe summarizes with the characterization that, “It’s sort of a maritime version of ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.'” Both fishing and cutting bait (making it the appropriate size for the type of fish you hope to catch) help you catch fish.

The phrase instructs you to make a decision. But over time, the phrase took on a hidden implication.

Cutting bait has come to mean cutting your fishing line. Therefore, you surrender your chance to bring home that night’s supper. But rather than just deciding between one or the other, it implies that you’re quitting. Many people dislike the thought of anyone thinking they’re a quitter. So the idiom digs into one’s own pride. If you don’t want to be a quitter, you don’t want to cut bait. You want to fish.

When our consultant used the phrase, we always knew what he meant. We’d taken steps to implement a strategy. We invested time and money in that endeavor. So it was time to fish — continue the work to see that strategy through — or cut bait — by giving up and throwing away the inroads we already made in the process.

It sounds like a simple choice between two things.

But today’s meaning is more of a challenge to keep going. And it usually comes both at a time you most need to hear it, and at time you least want to.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.