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Posted by Victoria S Dennis on November 25, 2010 at 08:52

In Reply to: Bail/bale posted by David FG on November 25, 2010 at 06:11:

: : : I have just looked at the bale/bail out debate, because of the current (23/11/2010) situation with ireland and the Euro, with the media saying the UK are to "bail them out".

: : : Do you think this is the correct spelling or would "bale" be mopre appropriate?
: : :

: : As an American, I didn't know there was a debate. It's always "to bail out" or "to receive a bailout" over here. I associate it with "bail" in the sense of "remove water to keep your boat from sinking".

: I wasn't aware there was a debate here either. It is surely 'bail out' as in 'secure the release from custody' or 'empty of water'.


But, DFG, that's precisely the point at issue - is the metaphor about getting someone out of jail (in which case the spelling must be 'bail'), or getting water out of a leaky boat to stop it sinking (in which case, in Rightpondia at any rate, the spelling can be either 'bail' or 'bale')?

The OED is clear that for more than three centuries the phrase unequivocally meant the former. It gives this entry for 'bail' as a verb:

3. To procure the liberation of (any one) from prison or arrest, by becoming bail or security for him. (To bail out implies that he is already in prison.) Also fig.
1587 FLEMING Contn. Holinshed III. 353/1 A woman..whome the same Bruistar had bailed out of Bridewell. 1588 SHAKES. Tit. A. II. iii. 299 Thou shalt not baile them, see thou follow me. 1642 FULLER Holy & Prof. St. I. iv. 11 The dearest Husband cannot bail his wife when death awaits her. 1791 BOSWELL Johnson (1831) I. 233, I shall have my old friend to bail out of the round-house. a1832 MACKINTOSH Revol. of 1688 Wks. 1846 II. 281 Twenty-eight peers were prepared to bail them, if bail should be required. 1859 MRS. GASKELL Round the Sofa 58, I offer to bail the fellow out, and to be responsible for his appearance at the sessions.

This meaning is still live and kicking in Rightpondia: if your nephew is arrested in a student protest, and you pay his bail so he doesn't have to stay in chokey till the court hearing, you are "bailing him out".

However, a draft addition from June 2009 to this entry in tthe online OED goes on to say:

trans. to bail out: to release or rescue (a person, business, etc.) from (esp. financial) difficulty or crisis. Also refl.
[The financial context of early evidence, in which money is the means by which rescue is effected, suggests that this sense probably belongs here. However the influence of BAIL v.4 b is also evident; see, for example, the use of the spelling bale, at BALE v.3 Additions b, and the note at that sense.]

1916 H. MEARNS Richard Richard xx. 350 We're going to pay off the debts, liquidate the mortgage, and set the Wells family on its feetbail 'em out, in short. 1932 Creation of Syst. Federal Home Loan Banks (U.S. Senate Comm. on Banking & Currency) 228 They should purchase some additional stock, if I may use the term, to bail out the Government's investment in the home loan banks. 1963 J. N. HARRIS Weird World Wes Beattie (1966) xviii. 182 Gadwell and Jackson made a fortune. They bailed themselves out, and their other enterprises began to prosper. 2003 Chatelaine Jan. 20/2 Bailing people out of bad situations that they have repeatedly dug themselves into is a bad idea. 2009 Press (Christchurch, N.Z.) (Nexis) 21 Jan. 4 The Government is eyeing a list of key businesses it would bail out if the deepening economic crisis saw bank funding dry up.

In other words, the OED reckons that the sense "get someone out of financial difficulty", which is no more than a century or so old, may well have been influenced by the "scoop water out of a sinking boat" idea. (VSD)