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Bail out

Q From Ian Woofenden, USA: How about a segment on the phrase bail out, meaning to escape from some difficult situation? I'm guessing it is spelled that way, but I don't know why. I wonder if it was originally used for leaving an aircraft before landing, or if there is some other origin.

A Presumably you’re in part unsure whether it’s bail out or bale out? In this, you join lots of other people who are unsure when to use which spelling in several of the senses of both words. Is it a bale of hay, or example, or a bail? Do you bail water out of the bottom of a boat, or do you bale it? You can easily find examples of both spellings in both these senses. When you’re referring to an emergency exit from an aircraft by parachute, or the sense you give, the position is even more complicated, because British and American usage differs.

Let’s clear the ground a bit. Bale is the correct spelling when we’re referring to a large bound parcel or closely pressed package of some substance, such as cotton, hay or paper. This comes ultimately from an old Germanic word that’s related to ball. On the other hand, when we’re clearing water from the bottom of a boat, we correctly bail it out, from French baille, a bucket.

If we’re speaking of the temporary release of a person from prison while awaiting trial, that’s bail, too, but it comes from yet a different source, an Old French word meaning custody or jurisdiction, itself from Latin bajulare, to bear a burden: when someone bails a person from prison, he’s taking on the responsibility of ensuring that the accused person will turn up for his trial.

Among other senses, British readers will know that the crosspieces bridging the stumps in cricket are also called bails; this is from the Old French baile, meaning a palisade or enclosure, perhaps from Latin baculum, a rod or stick. The figurative sense of getting somebody or something out of trouble (“the government had bailed the company out with the equivalent of 2.7 billion euros in aid”) probably comes from the legal sense, since it usually involves paying over money.

And that hasn’t exhausted the various senses of the two words by any means. No wonder people get confused.

There’s little doubt in anybody’s mind about the legal or cricket senses: both are always bail. There’s more confusion about the “tote that bale” and “bail that boat” senses, though dictionaries are clear those spellings are the correct ones.

The aircraft one is rather more of a problem, perhaps because its connection with the other senses is less than obvious. The early evidence is from the US, in which the term was always spelled bail:

One or two [parachutists] have said they found the descent exhilarating. However, the average pilot who has to “bail out” hurriedly from a crippled or burning plane never is able to recall any such sensation.

Oakland Tribune, California, 1 Sep. 1929.

He successfully bailed out of an airplane at an elevation of 1,500 feet.

The New York Times, 11 April 1932.

There’s no doubt from this early evidence that aviators were thinking that escaping from an aircraft in danger was like bailing water out of a boat, the immediate image being that of throwing the water over the side. Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, published in 1948, gave this as the origin. However, muddying the waters rather badly, he spelled it bale. The Oxford English Dictionary concurs in that spelling, and suggests that people may have been influenced by the image of an escaping airman being a bale or bundle thrown through the aircraft door. (Or could it be that the parachute itself was viewed as such a bundle?)

The current position is that when the idea concerns escaping from some potentially difficult situation, American English virtually always uses bail out, perhaps under the influence of the legal sense of bail. British English seems to be divided about 50:50 between that and bale out, and it’s easy to find examples of baled out in the English press:

I suppose I was at about 12,000 to 15,000 feet when I baled out.

Daily Telegraph, 10 Jun. 2010.

Most, but not all, British dictionaries give this form either as the main one or an acceptable alternative.

However, the noun, meaning an act of giving financial assistance to a failing business or economy to save it from collapse, appears in most dictionaries as bailout, though baleout is moderately common online and has appeared in a small number of printed sources.

Page created 26 Jun. 2004
Last updated 6 Nov. 2010

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Last modified: 6 November 2010.