Judging from the mail, I should have given more space to "fish or cut bait" in yesterday's column.
Barry Hoberman wondered why I ignored the parallel phrase that ends "get off the pot"; the answer is that Globe style doesn't permit suggestively asterisked words, and rather than come up with a labored paraphrase, I figured I would let readers think of it for themselves.
"In the last line of Act I, scene 2 of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream,' Bottom enjoins his comrades, 'Hold or cut bowstrings!' which I assume is an archery-based equivalent of 'Fish or cut bait,'" e-mailed Charlie Rathbone. "Cut bowstrings," if you accept the reading by William Godshalk (also discussed at Wikipedia), would mean "stop fighting," since retreating crossbow archers cut the strings of the weapons they left behind.
Larry Stabile said his understanding of "fish or cut bait" has always been "that if we seize our opportunity we'll get to do the exciting, glamorous job, otherwise we'll be consigned to the menial." But "glamorous" didn't come into it in early uses of the phrase. "The fisherman's life is arduous … Those who do not clean and prepare the fish cut bait for the lines, replace the lost tackle, and repair the nets. ("Land of the Midnight Sun: Summer and Winter Journeys through Sweden," by Paul Du Chaillu, 1881)
Both "The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy" (2003) and the UK site The Phrase Finder say that "cut bait" means "to stop fishing." I couldn't find any textual support for that as a literal sense, however, even though the "cut bait" part of the idiom now usually means "abandon the endeavor."
The Phrase Finder credits a US circuit judge, Levi Hubbell, with the first use of the phrase: "Judge Cushing has commenced a suit in the United States Court. Judge Cushing must either fish or cut bait."
But there's a earlier citation -- though a murky one -- in The Opal: A Monthly Periodical of the State Lunatic Asylum (in Utica, N.Y.), edited by the patients, in 1852. "The moral turpitude of such customs, among those who profess so loud, and long, their fortunate position among folks, and hence, their infallibility bids him who indulges his time to pass in their narration, to fish or cut bait."
Most subsequent uses, however, are fairly clear. Here's a sampling of the fossil evidence, from Google Books and Nexis, offering more than you probably want to know about the evolution of "cut bait":
"It was formerly the duty of the man who kept the watch on deck, in the night, to cut the bait on a block. But the bait-mill has taken place of this noisy and tedious process. Nothing, certainly, in the time of any fisherman now living, has occasioned so much joy as its introduction." (The Friend, a journal, 1843)
"The time had come when, as the mackerel fisherman said to his passengers, they must do one of three things: Fish, cut bait, or go ashore." (United States Service Magazine, 1856)
"The conscript law takes effect on the 15th of May. The Appeal says that every man must fight or cut bait." (The New York Times, May 11, 1862, reporting war news from the South -- and already varying the wording of the idiom)
"If [your sons] are allowed to run from pillar to post -- fishing to-day, at school to-morrow, and gadding about the streets the next day -- I am afraid that by and by they will neither be able to fish nor cut bait." (Wisconsin Journal of Education, 1862)
"Labor down to starvation limits, and coal and wittles way up, I couldn't 'ave provided fish-heads and crackers for the family. It was the old story, 'cut bait or fish.' I cut loose …" (New York Times, testimony of a man charged with abandoning his family, 1884)
"The Homeopathic Pellet is a new journalistic candidate to be issued at Austin, Texas, by C. E. Fisher, M.D. …We hope it may succeed in fishing and not have 'to cut bait or go ashore.'" (Ann Arbor Medical Advance, 1884)
"Fisherman's rules should be rigidly enforced: 'Fish, cut bait, or go overboard.'" (Ohio Journal of Dental Science, 1889)
"The Eskimo is industrious, because nature compels him to 'fish, cut bait, or get out of the boat.'" (School and Home, 1895)
"The thousands of Cuban soldiers yet in idleness will have to go to work when they find that it is imperative that they either cut bait or fish." (Literary Digest, 1899)
"'Now,' said Martin, turning to the protesting one, 'are you going to fish, cut bait, or get out of the boat?'" ("Big Flat," by Henry Oyen, 1919)
"It was also plainly the duty of the government to either cut bait, fish, or row ashore. It should have given Muscle Shoals to this industrialist or reached the conclusion that it was not going to do so without delay." ("Aladdin, USA," by Ernest Greenwood, 1928)
"They decided to cut bait entirely and carry on their political fishing with some altogether less troublesome fly than Christianity." ("The Plight of Freedom," by Paul Scherer, 1948)
"Have you ever been told you must 'fish, cut bait, or go ashore'?" ("Everyday Occupations," by Mildred A. Davey, 1950)
"The United States may decide that the stake is not worth such a risk,
and that it is better to cut bait (even if this means, say, giving up Laos)." ("The State of War," by Stanley Hoffmann, 1968)
"These cost overruns have a way of just running out of sight. So I felt it was simply time to cut bait and take what we had." (Washington Post, 1978)
"Dear Fish or Cut Bait: Cut bait." (Advice columnist Cheryl Lavin in the Chicago Tribune, 2008)