Words We Use: Bait
A workman’s or labourer’s midday meal
The word bait is used for food, a meal, for men and horses in Scotland and all over England from the North Country south to Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Surrey, Kent, Sussex and Somerset – quite a spread. The word was once common currency in parts of Co Wexford. A Nortumberland poet, Robson, in a poem called Evangeline (1870) complained of having “Scairsh a spunk i’ the grate, an’ ne supper, ne bait”.
Bait is also defined in the English Dialect Dictionary as “A workman’s or labourer’s meal in the middle of the day”. The EDD says about Northumberland: “With a tin bottle full of cold water or tea, and a piece of bread which is also called his bait, the hewer says good-bye to his wife and speeds off to work.” A Sussex definition of the word is “afternoon refreshment, with which strong beer is given, in the hay or harvest field”. Perhaps this what attracted the Wexford spalpeens to Sussex and to Pembrokeshire, where they doled out cider by the bucketful in the fields. A Durham glossary of 1849 defines bait as “food taken by a pitman to his work”. In Surrey, the EDD says, “bait is the afternoon meal in haymaking and harvest time. The morning meal is called the Elevener or Beever. In Norfolk the afternoon meal is called Fourings or Four.”
Another definition of bait is a rest, a halt, generally for refreshment.
Hence the compounds bait-bag, the bag in which the farm labourers carried their lunch to the fields; bait poke, a workman’s provision bag; bait-house, a hedge ale-house, especially in the neighbourhood of the collieries; bait irons, the irons fixed into the shafts of the cart, which support a piece of sacking to hold horses’ food; bait-time, the time for taking food.
Elisha Coles in his 1677 English Dictionary, explaining the difficult terms that are used in Divinity, Husbandry, Physick, Phylosophy, Law, Navigation, Mathematicks and other Arts and Sciences, has “A bait at an inn, refectio”. Peter Levins in his 1570 Manipulus Vocabulorum, a dictionary of English and Latin words, defined bayt as refrigarium, refectio.
Used of a fire, the word means to feed. Barnes, the dialect poet and lexicographer from Dorset, in poem dated 1869, wrote: “An’ zing your zong or tell your teale, While I do bait the vire with logs.”
The word is ultimately from Old Norse beita, to cause to bite; to graze, feed sheep and cattle.