Fish or cut bait

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Fish or cut bait : Phrases


Either continue in a productive manner or desist entirely. Similar in meaning to 'put up or shut up', or the US vulgarism 'shit or get off the pot'.



This phrase is of US origin. To cut bait means to stop fishing. It appears to have been introduced to the public consciousness, and may well have been coined by, US Judge Levi Hubbell. It came up in 1853, in a legal dispute over land ownership between US Attorney General Caleb Cushing and a William Hungerford. Cushing was displeased with Hubbell's conduct of the case an threatened to have him impeached. Hubbell's response was:

"Judge Cushing has commenced a suit in the United States Court. Judge Cushing must either fish or cut bait."

The reason for believing that Hubbell coined the phrase comes from the response of the journalists who reported the case. Many of them, along with the lawyers in court, had clearly not heard the phrase before and were at a loss to understand what the judge meant. For example:

The Madison Daily Argus And Democrat, 1853: "What the precise meaning of that term is, I do not know."

Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, August 1853: "There was some discussion amongst counsel, without any conclusion, as to the meaning of this phrase."

Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, October 1853: "I leave it to you to interpret that phrase from the testimony of the case."

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