Dear Word Detective: The Submissions Committee on our Journal (The Stanford Journal of International Law) has had a raging debate about the meaning of the phrase "Fish or Cut Bait." The disagreement is over what "cut bait" means. One camp is positing that "cut bait" refers to the act of cutting off the line to let go of the bait already in the water and calling it quits. The other suggests that "cutting bait" is the preparation process of preparing bait before fishing, and refers to someone who is always preparing and never actually going for it. -- Alexander Thier, via the internet.
Hubba hubba. I seem to be getting questions from loftier precincts these days, which comes as a welcome change after years of settling drunken bar bets for people who send in their queries scribbled on crumpled cocktail napkins. International law, eh? Do I get a sash or a medal or something if I answer your question? One of those cool top hats you guys wear would do.
"Fish or cut bait" is a catch phrase that means "Make a decision. Get on with what you're supposed to be doing or abandon the pretense." The allusion is not, as is commonly thought, to a dawdling angler being urged to cut his or her fishing line (that would be a waste of line, hook and bait). "Cutting bait" refers to preparing the bait (usually "junk" fish) for use as either hooked bait or "chum" dumped into the water to attract other fish. So the phrase really means, "If you're not going to concentrate on fishing, then at least get away from the rail and go over in the corner and cut bait for the rest of us who do want to fish."
"Fish or cut bait" is probably a very old phrase, but it only first appeared in print in The Congressional Record in 1876 in an account of the debate over issuing silver dollars. "I want you gentlemen on the other side of the House," said one Congressman weary of his colleagues' dithering, "to fish or cut bait."
(© 1999 by Evan Morris)http://www.word-detective.com/122099.html
'shit or get off the pot,' a vulgar rephrasing of the old New England 'fish or cut bait,' meaning to do something or let someone else try, do something or give up.
Page[s] 314-315. "I Hear America Talking" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976).http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/17/m...