Not once but thrice in a novel I read recently, paratroopers in World War II were said to be baling out of airplanes. The only sense I could make of this was that these intrepid airmen were making large bundles of something—possibly hay or cotton—and tossing them out of the aircraft, an unlikely activity, especially during wartime. What the author meant, of course, was that these guys were bailing out, that is jumping from the plane while wearing a parachute (a practice that seems sensible to me only if the plane is crashing—although decidedly more sensible than jumping without a parachute).
Bail, the verb that appears in the correct phrase bailing out, ultimately has its root in the Latin bajulare, “to carry a burden,” and since 1613 or so has meant to “clear water from by dipping and throwing.” Parachutists jumping from a plane must have reminded someone of water being tossed from a boat, and the term thus acquired its new meaning around 1930.
Bale, on the other hand, is from Old High German balla (“ball”) and means to make up something into a bale, or bundle.
The confusion of bale and bail is similar to using bait when bate is meant, especially in the phrase with bated breath. Bate, from Middle English abaten is to “reduce the intensity of, or hold back,” which is what you do with your breath when it’s bated.
If your breath were baited it could either be laced with something tempting as an attraction (from Old Norse beita or “food”), or possibly persecuted, teased, or attacked (from Old English bitan or “bite”), as in the phrase bear-baiting.
Just after I thought I had finished this blog, what should appear before my unbelieving eyes but another similar solecism, this one in the Houston Chronicle, presumably written by a writer and edited by an editor: “'It's knock 'em dead entertainment,' said the director, choreographer, co-writer and narrator of the flag-waiving musical, whose full title is 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'…”
If you waived a flag, you’d be giving it up, from the Middle English weiven, which means “reject or decline.” I’ll bet what those George M. Cohan idolators are really doing to that grand old flag is waving it—making it flutter in the air, from the Old English wafian, meaning “motion with the hands as a signal.”
Mercy me, if you’re in the writing or editing business, learn to spell one-syllable words, for Pete’s sake! (I’ll cut you some slack on the longer ones.)
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has nothing to say about these word confusions, except for his muddled views in this tautologous and utterly unhelpful rhyme:
Do not write bale if you mean bail,
The same for male if you mean mail.
And likewise bate, instead of bait,
And also gate instead of gait.
And waive should not be used for wave—
Naïve? Its umlaut fends off nave!
Such words are far from interchangeable,
Their letters are not rearrangeable—
And yet Mitt Romney can’t explain
Why Bain is not the same as bane.