Bail Vs bale

31 May

Very briefly the other day, I did think I’d stumbled on something truly exciting.   I was standing on the platform inOld St tube station, and the advert opposite was for Aviva, a large British insurance company.

The advert (see photo) extolled the virtue of Aviva who ‘baled’ the speaker out after a flood.

Immediately, I thought ‘I’m sure that’s wrong; shouldn’t it be bail?’

So being the sort of curious person I am, I decided to look it up.

Most dictionaries agreed with me (Rumramruf:1; insurance giant: 0). You bail someone out of trouble.  You bail someone out of jail.  If a boat has a hole in it, you use a bucket to bail out the water.

Merriam-Webster defines one of the uses of bail as: To help from a predicament

CoBuild (primarily a dictionary for learners of English as a second language but I think it is excellent) defines it thus: If you bail someone out, you help them out of a difficult situation, often by giving them money.

If you’re making hay into nice neat shapes, you bale it – although the Oxford Compact Dictionary does disagree with me, in suggesting that bale is an acceptable British spelling for the meaning of ‘bail’ above (to help someone out).

But the reason why this bail/bale really caught my attention was as it got me wondering whether it was one of those interesting pairs of words that exist in English where one word has, over time, developed into two separate but similar words, each with a slightly distinct meaning.

Classic examples include:

  • Shirt and skirt (both from the Old English scyrte)
  • Hale and whole (both from the Old English hal)
  • Breach and break (both from the Old English brecan)
  • Scatter and shatter (both from the Middle English scateren)
  • Ditch and dike (both from the Old English dic)

So I did briefly get very excited, thinking I had found a new pair of words to add to this small list.

But I am wrong – bail and bale, as similar as they are, appear to have different origins.

Bale (in its noun form of a ) appears to come from the same root as the words ‘ball’ and ‘bolus’, all of which are thought to trace back to a word meaning ‘swell’.

Bail comes from a word for ‘bucket’ (which makes sense when you think about getting water out of a leaky boat), and traces back to words relating to a ‘porter of water’.

But, after all of this, it did strike me the other day, that Aviva had perhaps used ‘bale’ deliberately, even though it’s an unusual usage.  If the advert had read ‘Aviva bailed us out …’, to the casual user, this could have sounded like a criminal escapade!


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