Bailout, the Word of 2008

This is my latest column in the Malaysia Star.

This year, the American Dialect Society selected “bailout” as its word of 2008. That means it was the one which the society’s members felt was the most relevant to the events of the year.

Earlier in the year, the editors and lexicographers at Merriam-Webster, one of the most well-known dictionary publishers in the US, made the same choice.

It was also the second most-nominated word of the year from the general public in a tally I’ve been keeping since November.

Every year, my lexical and linguistic colleagues and I gather to pick the special word (or phrase). It’s nothing like the gatherings of the Academie Française, which is the official language body of France.

Our gathering is a more freewheeling affair (meaning, largely unstructured and without rules), and is meant to be fun. It’s whimsical.

Still, as the new head of the society’s new words committee, I can’t help but feel that this year, like last year when we chose “subprime”, we’ve really come into touch through our grand prize-winner “bailout” with the serious and important preoccupations of the American people.

Bailout is kind of a stand-in for all the financial problems that have slowly been growing worse over the last couple of years. Large businesses are failing and, as a result, they are seeking aid from the vastly wealthy federal government.

That aid, no matter what form it takes –loans, credit guarantees, or even just free handouts with no strings attached (meaning that the money is given and nothing is expected in return except that the recipient should thrive) – is called a bailout.

There are a couple of kinds of bailing out that are related to the financial bailout in the minds of English-speakers, although the one from which it truly springs is uncertain.

To bail out a boat means to use a bucket or some other container to scoop water out of the vessel so that it doesn’t sink. This comes from the French baille, meaning “tub” or “vat”.

You can envision, surely, the US$700bil federal bailout plan as if the US Government were scooping big bundles of cash out of its treasury and into the accounts of failing businesses, although the thing being scooped in that case is the solution rather than the problem. Greed and stupidity are not so easily removed.

Interestingly, if something is worth less than the amount that is owed on it, such as a house that has dropped to US$450,000 in value but for which the homeowner still owes US$600,000 to the bank who loaned the money for the house, then it is said to be underwater.

To bail out of an airplane means to leap from it, usually in an emergency situation. Presumably, one will only bail out of an airplane if one has a parachute or some other guarantee that death by airplane wouldn’t merely be replaced with death by gravity.

Again, you can likely envision how this might be related to the financial bailout. There’s an idea of escaping from a dangerous situation. However, this, too, is not a perfect metaphor, because to bailout from the financial predicament would be an acknowledgement of defeat.

If the financial bailout were literally the same as bailing out of an airplane, it would mean that we are fleeing from the smoking hulk that is screaming towards the earth rather than trying to fix it mid-air.

This kind of bailout has a couple of related slang meanings. For example, if you are about to leave a place with your friends, you might say “Let’s bail”, meaning, “Let’s leave”.

Also, if someone has offered, say, to help you move your belongings into a new home, but then they did not appear at the appointed hour, you might say, “They bailed on me”, meaning, “They didn’t show up and do the thing they said they would”. The “on” here is important, because “they bailed me” is nonsensical.

Another kind of bail is the money offered to a court as a way of guaranteeing that a criminal suspect will appear some time afterwards for trial.

It’s a way of ensuring that the milder criminals don’t clog up the jails and prisons. This, too, comes from Old French, from the verb bailer, “to take charge of”.

To jump bail, then, is to leave town despite the large sums of money that someone has given to ensure that you would not do that very thing, which is called standing bail.

A judge is likely to accept bail only for a criminal who is not a flight risk, that is, likely to flee. Leaving town in this way is also sometimes jokingly called foot bail.

This kind of bail can also be compared to the financial situation.

In some cases, the money the US federal government is giving to industry is a way of ensuring that these companies do not go bankrupt.

Bankruptcy, I suppose, is a kind of fleeing the scene of where something has gone terribly wrong.

The bail being offered here is a bailout money that is kind of a reassurance to the market as a whole that the major players in the economy intend to stay the course.

In any case, we are scooping the water out of the boat as fast as we can and hope to have the vessel safely dockside as soon as possible.

Posted January 14, 2009

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