c. 1200, "to torment or persecute (someone);" c. 1300, "to set a dog to bite and worry (an animal, especially a confined one, for sport)," from Old Norse beita "to cause to bite," from Proto-Germanic *baitjan (source also of Old English bætan "to cause to bite," Old High German beizzen "to bait," Middle High German beiz "hunting," German beizen "to hawk, to cauterize, etch"), causative of *bitan (see bite (v.)).
The earliest attested use is figurative of the literal one, which is from the popular medieval entertainment of setting dogs on some ferocious beast to bite and worry it. The verb also in Middle English could mean "put a horse or other domestic beast out to feed or graze," and, of persons, "to eat food," also figuratively "feast the eye" (late 14c.). Compare bait (n.). Related: Baited; baiting.