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Fish or cut bait is a common English language colloquial expression, dating back to the 19th-century United States, that advises for teamwork. The use of this expression has expanded over time, sometimes including the ideas of swift decision-making (to act or not to act), and cautions against procrastination and/or indecisiveness.
The exact origin is unknown. According to the Phrase Finder website, the expression first appeared in texts in the mid-19th century United States, and derives from the act of fishing. One of the earliest instances where the expression received public attention was during a widely reported 1853 court case involving land ownership.
The expression explores the merits of two options: "Fish", which refers to the act of fishing; or "cut bait", which refers to cutting up pieces of bait into small, usable portions. A more modern, alternative interpretation of "cut bait" is understood to mean cutting one's fishing line. The meaning of the expression can vary, depending on which interpretation of "cut bait" is intended.
The original version of the expression derives from the fishing industry, in which fishermen must literally decide who is to fish, and who is to cut the bait used for fishing. Both the task of fishing, and that of cutting the bait, were considered equally important to the goal of catching fish.
Failure to contribute is not one of the offered alternatives, although "go ashore" and "go overboard" are sometimes offered as clarifying alternatives.
It's sort of a maritime version of "Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
"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."
... and from School and Home, 1895:
"The Eskimo is industrious, because nature compels him to 'fish, cut bait, or get out of the boat.'"
These usages exemplify the "do something useful" interpretation of the phrase.
Another common variation of the meaning implies "giving up" on something, or "act now or stand down". This variation stems from the alternative interpretation of "cut bait" meaning to cut one's fishing line. An example of this variation:
"You've been putting off calling him for hours; either fish or cut bait."
Depending on the context, the expression can be intended as a form of advice or constructive criticism. It can also be interpreted as a threat, an invitation to act on a threat, or an accusation.
One of the earliest notable examples of the expression that gained public attention was a court case in 1853 involving land disputes, in which US Attorney General Caleb Cushing was displeased with Judge Levie Hubbell's conduct in the case. Cushing threatened to have the Judge impeached. Hubbell's response to the threat was:
"...Cushing has commenced a suit in the United States Court...[he] must either fish or cut bait."
Hubbell's use of the expression implied that Cushing should either act on his threat of impeachment (fish), or, if unwilling, withdraw the threat and proceed with the case (cut bait). In this example, the expression is similar in intent to another common colloquialism: Put up or shut up.
The more modern variation on the meaning of the expression ("giving up" on something, or "stepping down") is due largely to the changing interpretation of "cut bait." Originally, "cut bait" referred to cutting up bait fish into small portions suitable for a hook or net. In more modern times, bait is often prepackaged, and cutting bait is uncommon outside of the commercial fishing industry. Therefore, the meaning of "cut bait" is sometimes taken to mean cutting one's fishing line, and giving up on the fishing. As a result, the meaning of the expression has changed over time to imply "act now or stand down." This variation is now so common that it widely appears as the first entry in dictionaries and other reference materials. On the other hand, it has been used to illustrate two necessary and related tasks that can not be done at the same time. Literally, a lone fisherman has to do both but can only do one at a time. The act of fishing exhausts the stockpile of bait that has been prepared. In other words, the balance between work and maintenance.