Definition: the act of removing water from a sinking ship using a smaller bucket.
Although the word was used in economic context as “government help for private business in trouble” since 1968, it got well known as such and infamous at the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, even elected word of the year by the American Dialect Society. But hidden behind the use of the word is, as so often in our everyday speech, symbolism with a nautical origin.
It dates back to the 17th century when shipping had a much more important role in society. On ships, there were special buckets to bail, to save a literally sinking ship. The word had developed before from the Latin baiulus meaning “carrier of a burden” to the, in the old days important maritime language French, where it was called baille.
In our modern world, too-big-to-fail financial corporations took the place of ships and dominate the news, and bailing them out does not mean scooping the water out but pouring the money in…
The word is used now in a way that the symbolism has lost importance and unfortunately, the word has a negative association due to the crisis. In this article from the Huffington Post, the author cynically criticizes the governments policy disguised in a story around a bailout of a wooden boat. Nonetheless the nautical use of the word has so much declined that many dictionaries don’t even mention the maritime, original meaning of the word anymore.
Knowing what you know now, every time you encounter the word, picture a sinking ship, which is heroically bailed out by brave men and saved from the perils of the sea.
This article is part of a small series of words whom’s origin leads back to shipping. Click the Etymology button below to find all related articles of the series.