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:
Incredible story of the Lancaster pilot who bailed out over Germany whose life was saved when a searchlight helped him find his parachute…
Bedfordshire plane crash: Photos of wreckage show pilot may have tried to bail out.
NZ skydivers bail out over Lake Taupo as plane crashes.
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.