Bail Out vs. Bale Out

By Maeve Maddox

Reading A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton, (St. Martin’s Minotaur, New York, 2003), I was distracted by the author’s frequent references to the necessity of a pilot’s having to “bale out” of his aircraft. How odd, I thought, that such a spelling error would slip by in a book of this quality. Surely the expression should be spelled “bail out.”

According to a UK source (The Phrase Finder), the choice between “bail out” and “bale out” depends upon one’s way of viewing the act of leaving the aircraft. The person who says, “bale out” is thinking of the parachuted person as a bundle being pushed out, like a bale of hay, whereas the person who says “bail out” is thinking of the act of pouring water from a boat.

This explanation might make sense if all English speakers agreed as to the spelling of the water idiom as “bail out.” Apparently some British speakers prefer to “bale out” boats.

Nearly 90 years ago, H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage, 1st edition, 1926) took a stand for bail:

bail is right, & bale wrong, in the sense throw water out; the derivation is from French baille, bucket.

Fowler made no pronouncement on how to spell the word for jumping out of an airplane, most probably because he hadn’t heard of it yet. The earliest OED citation of bail in that sense is an American source dated 1925. The first citation for “bale out” is dated 1939.
Fowler’s successor Sir Ernest Gowers (Modern English Usage, 2nd edition, 1965) dismissed the relevance of etymology in favor of “differentiation”:

bail out, bale out. The OED says that [the spelling bail] should be used for emptying a boat of water; bale is ‘erroneous’ because the derivation is from French baille, bucket. But, perhaps owing to an instinct for differentiation, popular usage prefers bale both for this and for making a parachute descent from an aircraft in an emergency.

The OED now has an entry for bale in the sense of “To lade or throw water out of a boat or ship with buckets,” but explains its etymology as an “erroneous spelling of bail.”

The Guardian/Observer Style Guide has adopted the spelling bale for both jumping from an airplane and for pouring water out of a boat:

bail out a prisoner, a company or person in financial difficulty; but bale out a boat or from an aircraft.

Other British news sources, however, seem to prefer bail:

Daily Mail
Incredible story of the Lancaster pilot who bailed out over Germany whose life was saved when a searchlight helped him find his parachute…

Mirror
Bedfordshire plane crash: Photos of wreckage show pilot may have tried to bail out.

BBC
NZ skydivers bail out over Lake Taupo as plane crashes.

Telegraph
Amid the 70th anniversary commemorations this summer it can be disclosed that at least 200 pilots died “needlessly” in 1940 after bailing out over water.

Even The Guardian mixes the two spellings in the obituary of Flight Lieutenant William Walker that appears in its US edition: the bale spelling appears in a photo caption and the bail spelling in the article that follows. The UK edition of The Guardian has “bale out” in the text as well as in the caption, but Walker’s obituary in both The Telegraph and The Independent has him bailing out.

Finally, the Ngram Viewer grid shows “bail out” far above “bale out” in printed usage.

Bottom line: If you don’t have strong reasons to do otherwise, stick to bail for exiting an airplane and for throwing water out of a boat.

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8 Responses to “Bail Out vs. Bale Out”

  • Peter Lucas

    re Bail out vs bale out. I’m in agreement with your conclusions and your advice, Finding one’s way out of a burning, crashing or otherwise doomed aircraft is a fairly effort-intensive activity, far more like bailing water out of a floundering vessel than like pitching a strawbale through an opening.
    There’s another use of bail; two wooden bits which are balanced on top of the wickets in cricket and which act as a tell-tale, falling off if the wickets are lightly snicked (is that a real word?) by a passing ball which would not otherwise have totally uprooted them.

  • Evelyn Howell

    Another possible sideways justification for the “bail” spelling when jumping out of a plane: “Bale” is already used as a verb in reference to making hay into compact units. “I’m going to the field to bale hay.” The action has nothing to do with jumping out of a plane or tossing anything out of a boat. To use “bale” in some way other than for making bales out hay, cotton, recycled clothing, etc. seems unnecessarily confusing.

  • thebluebird11

    Maybe State-side things are different? I have never seen “bale” for bailing out of boats, planes, financial jams or anything else. I thought “bale” was for hay, maybe paper, stuff bundled up and tied.

  • thebluebird11

    …and interesting that there is an ad for Miami Bail Bonds on this page right now LOL. I was about to mention being bailed out of jail. Plus the expression of “bailing,” bailing on someone, not showing up or not doing something promised, kind of a lame way of getting out of something. For the ESL folks, “I told my friend I’d go with him to the airport but I bailed at the last minute.”

  • AnWulf

    However, Skeats writes:

    BALE (3), to empty water out of a ship. (Dutch?) Not in early use. … It means to empty by means of bails, i.e. buckets, a term borrowed from the Dutch or Danish; more probably the former. Du. balie, a tub; whence balien, to bale out (Tauchnitz, Dutch Diet. p. 23). + Dan. balle, bailie, a tub. + Swed. balja, a sheath, scabbard ; a tub. + G. balje, a half-tub (nautical term) ; Fliigel’s Diet. 3. By comparing this with Swed. balg, balj, a pod, shell, G. balg, a skin, case, we see that bail is, practically, a dimin. of bag.

  • Jake White

    My uncle owns a Bail Bonds company, and I used to work for him several years ago. The word bail in this sense is getting someone out of a form of bondage, and so I guess that would make sense with the definition described in the article. If we were referring to detainees as a bale of hay, perfects the company would be called “Bale Bonds” instead of “Bail Bonds.” This has been an interesting article, so thanks for sharing it.

  • Trevor Morris

    Some words are derived from archaic roots, thus baille = bucket leads to “bail out a boat” (with a bucket). Other words are derived through metaphorical usage “bale out of a plane”, as a last resort let yourself fall out of it “like a Hay-bale” ie. without exercising much control, as if inanimate. No use going back to old French/Dutch/English for every definition.

  • Fred Sekiwano

    The Phrase Finder seems to present convincing logic relating bale out of a pilot to a bundle-a bale-and it’s the ‘bundle’ of the body of the pilot being saved by pushing it out of the plane.
    Since bail is related to a bucket as in the French word ‘baille’, it’s the water being bucketed out-bail out should be good to use.
    To note, it’s not the water being saved; rather it’s the people in the boat. So, their lives are being saved through the process of bailing the water out of the boat!

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