Bank 'Bail Outs' Reflect Every Sense of the Term

Rob Kyff on

Q: When we talk about bailouts of banks, does "bail" refer to bailing out a boat with a bucket or to jumping out of a crippled plane? And what about bailing someone out of jail? Are these "bails" related? -- Chris Ryan, New York City

A: Yes! The bail in all three senses ultimately derives from the Latin "bajulare," meaning "to carry; bear a burden."

Let's start with bailing out a boat. "Bajulare," with its sense of carry, gave rise to the French word "baille," meaning bucket, which became "bail" in English. So, when we use a container to remove water from a boat, we bail (bucket) it out.

Now let's go directly to jail. Do not pass "Go." Do not set bail at $200. The Latin root "bajulare," with its carry sense, also gave rise to the French verb "ballier," meaning to carry something, and, by extension, to take charge of or hand over; deliver.

It's easy to see how this sense influenced another meaning of the English word "bail": To take responsibility for a person accused of a crime, often by handing over money, say $200, as a guarantee the accused will show up later in court.

This "take charge of" sense of "ballier" also gives us the English words bailiff (a court officer or sheriff) and bailiwick (originally the office of jurisdiction of a bailiff, now meaning someone's domain).

And now to the wild blue yonder! The term bail out, meaning to jump from a stricken airplane, first appeared in print in the Oakland Tribune in 1925: " ... the pilot who has to 'bail out' hurriedly from a crippled or burning plane."


Linguists believe the term arose because parachutists leap from a plane like water being bailed from a boat, which may explain why skydiving is on so many people's bucket lists. The expression was probably also influenced by the maritime notion of bailing out (removing water) as an act of escape from a dangerous situation.

Hey, wait! ... er, Hay, wait! Some Brits spell the aeronautical term "bale out," believing it derives from its similarity to tossing a bale of hay out of a loft. (American etymologists tend to bail out when they hear this explanation, mostly because it comes from people who spell "airplane" as "aeroplane.")

So, the "bailout" offered to banks is a metaphoric combination of all three "bail outs": maritime bailing (saving the ship from sinking), rescuing miscreants (get out of jail) and aeronautic leaping (think "golden parachute").

So, picture those bankers as aviators, rascals and sailors -- bailers all!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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