EDIT: This answer has three main sections: the first answers each of the original subquestions one by one, the second is the OED entry for pail, and the third is a selection of citations from literature.
The original poster asked the following questions:
- What is the difference between bucket and pail?
Sometimes nothing, but sometimes a great deal. There are cases where the two words can be freely interchanged, but many others where they cannot. When there is a difference, bucket is the hypernym of pail, in that pail is a more specific sort of thing and bucket is more generic.
Pail takes on many attributes of can or cannister, including the property of holding liquids. A pail is a specific sort of shipping container. A bucket is sometimes closer to a basket or tub. As no one would ever think to interchange basket and pail, this shows part of where the distinction between the two necessarily lies.
This leads to a good rule of thumb: If you could use can or cannister instead of pail, then you probably should not use bucket. If you could use basket or tub instead of bucket, you probably should not use pail.
Consider what happens when you go to an old-fashioned well to fetch water from it. There is a bucket permanently attached to the well, which you use to retrieve water from the bottom of the well. However, the thing you pour that water into to bring back with you would usually be a pail. That is, you use pails to fetch water from the bucket in the well. If you brought a bucket with you to get that water, it would be assumed to be larger than if you brought a pail.
- Is there a distinction between the shape of a bucket and the shape of a pail?
Both are modified cylinders, but like a can, a pail is more apt to have sides perpendicular to its bottom than is a bucket, whereas a bucket like a basket or tub often has a wider top than bottom. Pails are also more apt to have a handle on them, although garbage pails and some of the shipping cannisters referred to as pails do not. But watering pails have handles and a spout for pouring. A bucket might have a handle, but it wouldn’t have a spout.
- Are buckets and pails made of different materials?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Because a pail is generally used to hold liquids, some materials and structures are forbidden in a pail or can that are allowed in a bucket or basket. You cannot have a chain or mesh or wire or fishnet or wicker pail, because the liquid would just flow out through the holes. But you can have a chain or wire-frame basket perfectly well. Consider the piece of hardware used in basketball to score “a bucket”, the one made of netting. That could not be called a pail due to the netting.
- Is there a difference between substances carried in buckets and pails?
Sometimes. Pails like cans are good for carrying liquids. Also, a very large basket can even carry people in it, which you would never use the word pail for.
- Is there dialectal variation in the use of these words?
Apparently so; according to the OED entry cite below, “The precise range of vessels denoted by pail, as distinct from the near-synonymous bucket, has varied over time, and there continues to be much regional variation. ”
- Is one of these words old-fashioned?
Certainly not in General American, no. I have some specific citations below.
For example, where garbage pail is commonplace, garbage bucket is almost completey unknown. Some people use watering can and others watering pails, but a watering bucket is much harder to come by, and probably means something else in that context. Similarly, a pail of milk is much more frequent than a bucket of milk, which seems like it would be large and heavy, and unsuitable for pouring.
- When is a native English speaker more likely to use the word bucket? (Please state the whereabouts of the speaker in question)
- When is a native English speaker more likely to use the word pail? (Ditto)
I’m from rural Wisconsin, part of the Inland North. For the record, I’m from an area that lacks the cot–caught merge, distinguishes a (ceramic) bubbler from a(n electric) water fountain, and sometimes opposes home-made with store-boughten. Oh, and we have a lot of cows. :)
There are many places I could not swap pail and bucket. I’ve tried to list some of them above, and why. Remember also that you never ship things in buckets, only in pails. I have other published differences below. For me, a pail and a bucket are similar, but there are many places where you must use one and must not use the other, which proves they are not identical. Here are some of them:
- Garbage goes in a garbage pail; you cannot say bucket there, although you may say garbage can.
- Milk goes in a pail; you cannot say bucket there.
- To score, a basketball goes in its bucket; you cannot say pail there.
- Jack and Jill fetched a pail of water; you cannot say bucket there unless perhaps they both were carrying the same one because it is larger. Note, though, there was a bucket at the well.
- A child at the beach carries water in a colorful little plastic pail; you could not call that a bucket.
- One can only have a watering can or watering pail, never a watering *bucket.
Here is an ngram showing how much more common pail is than bucket in a couple of typical usages:
And here’s another contextual distinction:
And here’s one more. I don’t know what happened with lunch pails in 1958. I also don’t know how to get ngrams to talk about “lunch-pail” with a hyphen, a form cited by the OED entry immediately below.
The OED points out that pails generally have handles and are especially suited for carrying liquids. It calls pails near-synonyms to buckets, but not identical. It points out there is regional variation.
I’ve omitted the Forms and the Compounds sections below.
Etymology: < Anglo-Norman paele, paelle, paiele, paile, paiel, pale pan, bucket and Old French, Middle French paele, paelle, paielle, payelle frying pan (c1150), warming pan, brazier, cauldron (c1170), salt pan (mid 13th cent. in the source translated in quot. 1481 at sense 2), liquid measure (c1275; Middle French poile, French poêle) < classical Latin patella small pan or dish, plate, in post-classical Latin also salt pan (8th cent.): see patella n. Compare post-classical Latin paella (from late 12th cent. in British sources; also as paila, payla).
Old English pægel wine vessel, liquid measure (see quot. below) is unrelated (compare West Frisian pegel liquid measure, quarter of a litre, Middle Dutch pēgel, peile liquid measure, water level marker (Dutch peil water level marker, Dutch regional pegel icicle), Middle Low German pēgel liquid measure, water level marker, German Pegel water level marker, water level, German regional (Swiss) beile measuring stick, Danish pægl (now hist.) liquid measure, half a pint, all probably ultimately < post-classical Latin pagella unit of measurement (9th cent.), spec. use of classical Latin pāgella small page, column of writing < the same base as pāgina page n.² + -ella -ella suffix); compare:
OE Antwerp Gloss. (1955) 85 Gillo, pægel.
It is unclear whether examples such as the following are to be interpreted as showing the Middle English or the Anglo-Norman word:
- 1336–7 in F. R. Chapman Sacrist Rolls Ely (1907) II. 80 In j payle pro cibo conservand.
- 1352–3 in F. R. Chapman Sacrist Rolls Ely (1907) II. 155 Item in ij payles, j boket, de nouo empt. pro ecclesia.
- 1393 in L. T. Smith Exped. Prussia & Holy Land Earl Derby (1894) 174 Pro ij payles ligneis, ij s. pr.
- 1423 Rolls of Parl. IV. 241 Item, xxxi Pottez du Bras‥Item, xix Pailles de Bras‥Item, xxvii Pailles de Bras rumpuz‥Item, xii Pailles ovec longe handels, pris le pec' viii d.
b. A pail and its contents; an amount such as would fill a pail; a pailful (usually of liquid).
- a. An open-topped vessel with a hooped carrying handle, typically of slightly tapering cylindrical shape, used esp. for holding or carrying liquids; (now more generally) a bucket. In early use also: †a container for food, a kitchen vessel (obs.).
The precise range of vessels denoted by pail, as distinct from the near-synonymous bucket, has varied over time, and there continues to be much regional variation. As a word for a container for milk pail has long been preferred (cf. milk-pail n. at milk n.¹ and adj. Compounds 1b), and it is now frequently taken to be a container for liquids, esp. one made of metal (or plastic); though originally it was made of wooden staves hooped with iron. Cf. dinner-pail n. at dinner n. Compounds 2, lunch-pail n. at lunch n.² Compounds 1. Recorded earliest in pail-hoop n. at Compounds 1.
- 1341–2 in F. R. Chapman Sacrist Rolls Ely (1907) II. 117, ij paylhopes pro Cementariis, j d.
- a1425 in T. Wright & R. P. Wülcker Anglo-Saxon & Old Eng. Vocab. (1884) I. 666 Hec multra, payle.
- c1487 J. Skelton tr. Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheca Historica ɪᴠ. 253 The capitaigne purveyeth for moch cataile vnto his paile, and so myngeth to-gedre mylk and blode.
- 1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 250/2 Payle a vessell, seau.
- 1577 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry ɪɪ. f. 66, The Gardners in the end of Sommer, doo take the rootes, and set them in pannes, pottes, or payles.
- a1639 H. Wotton Reliquiæ Wottonianæ (1651) 524 Jone takes her neat-rub'd paile, and now She trips to milk the Sand-red cow.
- 1697 Dryden tr. Virgil Pastorals ɪɪ, in tr. Virgil Wks. 7 New Milk that‥overflows the Pails.
- 1727 ‘S. Brunt’ Voy. to Cacklogallinia 34 They carried two Pails a-piece with a Yoke, like our Tub-women.
- 1798 R. Southey Well of St. Keyne v, There came a man from the house hard by At the Well to fill his pail.
- 1846 E. W. Farnham Life in Prairie Land 129 The best ewer I could get was an old pail.
- 1897 H. Wing Milk & its Products v. 81 All vessels used to contain milk should be heavily tinned; pails, cans, and the like, that are of the kind called ironclad are preferable on account of durability.
- 1965 A. Lurie Nowhere City i. 9 He‥took the mop out of the tin pail by the back door, and crammed the flowers into the pail.
- 1997 Sierra Nov.–Dec. 62/2 The kids have collected a menagerie of water critters in a pail by dragging long-handled dip nets through the turbid, shallow water.
c. Used allusively in various phrases with reference to milking.
- 1592 B. Rich Aduentures of Brvsanvs ɪɪ. viii. 69 Like a madde man that would power on a paile of water when he ment to make the fire burne.
- a1616 Shakespeare Comedy of Errors (1623) v. i. 174 Euer as it blaz'd, they threw on him Great pailes of puddled myre to quench the haire.
- 1647 in F. Roberts & I. M. M. Macphail Dumbarton Common Good Accts. (1972) 156 Givin for thrie payules wyne with tobacco and pypes.
- 1700 Moxon's Mech. Exercises: Bricklayers-wks. 21 They may throw Pales of Water on the Wall after the Bricks are lay'd.
- 1779 G. Keate Sketches from Nature (ed. 2) I. 42 But why do we stop?‥ Only to give the horses a pail of water, replies the postillion.
- 1840 R. H. Dana Two Years before Mast vii. 55 A small boat‥brought, as a present to the crew, a large pail of milk, a few shells, and a block of sandal wood.
- 1886 T. H. Hall Caine Son of Hagar ɪ. v, Crossing the garden with a pail of water just raised from the well.
- 1914 S. Lewis Our Mr. Wrenn ii. 20 If you was in heaven and there was a pail of beer on one side and a gold harp on the other‥and you was to have your pick, which would you take?
- 1953 J. Baldwin Go tell it on Mountain ɪɪ. ii. 170 He put the two pails of water carefully on the ground.
- 1993 Outdoor Canada Oct. 52/3 She trudged through the marshy areas picking pails of Cloudberries.
†2. A shallow pan, esp. one used to obtain salt by the evaporation of brine; a salt pan. Obs.
- 1615 G. Markham Eng. Hus-wife in Countrey Contentments 104 When age‥shall disable her [sc. a cow] for the payle,‥she may be‥made fit for the shambles.
- 1652 Observ. upon Aristotles Politiques 34 Excise is paid by all retailers of Wine, and other commodities; for each Tun of Beer six shillings, for each Cow for the Paile two Stivers every week.
- 1758 R. Brown Compl. Farmer (1759) 19 The best sort of cows for the pail.
- 1812 W. P. Newby Let. in J. J. Looney Papers T. Jefferson (Retirement Series) (2008) V. 260 By endeavouring to brake one of my young cows to the pail we have lost her.
1888 F. T. Elworthy W. Somerset Word-bk. (at cited word), A cow is said to be ‘a come'd in to pail’ when her calf is gone, and all her milk becomes available for the dairy.
1888 T. Hardy Withered Arm in Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. Jan. 30/1 The cows were ‘in full pail’.
1956 D. E. Marshall Eng. People 18th Cent. vi. 205 With better agriculture and more fodder crops came a greater concentration on the breeding of livestock. Hitherto, sheep, valued as mobile dung-carts, had been bred for their fleeces, and cattle for the pail and the plough.
- 1481 Myrrour of Worlde (Caxton) ɪɪ. xxi. 112 Nygh vnto metz the cyte is a water that renneth there, the whiche is soden in grete payelles [Fr. paales] of copper, and it becometh salt fayr and good.
- 1494 Loutfut MS f. 24v, in Dict. Older Sc. Tongue at (Paill), Be the sownd of paelles tymbres & othir thingis that makis gret noyes.
Third edition, March 2005; online version March 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/136047; accessed 04 May 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1904.
As one coherent set of examples showing bucket versus pail, George R.R. Martin is a contemporary American author and editor of fantasy and fiction, popular for his Song of Ice and Fire world which HBO has been adapting for its popular TV show, Game of Thrones.
Over the course of the five books published so far, he uses pail 57 times and bucket 62 times, including sentences in which both notably occur as distinct, contrasting (!) items: “Rich men had it piped into their homes; the poor filled their pails and buckets at public fountains.”
Martin also has people using pails to carry water back from the bucket at an old-fashioned well, which again shows these two are different in his usage. Finally, he employs a very large bucket to haul people up a sheer mountainside.
Here’s a sampling of illustrative sentence, in order of occurrence, from Martin’s five published novels in the series, with NPs in which pale or bucket appears emboldened below. I feel that the range of these citations gives a good feel for how and when pails and buckets are considered distinct.
- On his head was a mock helm fashioned from an old tin bucket, with a rack of deer antlers strapped to the crown and hung with cowbells.
- One afternoon, while she was waiting her turn to draw a pail of water from the well, she heard the hinges of the east gate groaning.
- Squires tossed pails of water over cookfires, while soldiers took out their oilstones to give their blades one last good lick.
- The lamplight revealed a pail overflowing with feces in one corner and a huddled shape in another.
- She kicked over the waste pail.
- She was thinking about the coin as she crossed the Flowstone Yard, struggling with the weight of the water in her pail.
- Half a hundred buckets of seawater still hung from the gunwales, in case of fires.
- Tyrion had seen her only yesterday, climbing the serpentine steps with a pail of water.
- Davos would talk to the gaolers whenever they came to his cell, whether to bring him food or change his slops pail. [. . .] “The pail,” said Davos, gesturing. [. . .] His lordship stared at the pail in horror.
- Jarl told them to be quick about it, before he had to throw a pail of water over them.
- Women were filling pails and flagons there.
- The wildlings might have a hundred and twenty men, but four defenders would be enough to see them off, with a few well-placed arrows and perhaps a pail of stones.
- “I am tired of having highborn women kicking pails of shit at me, Father.
- She used the dog’s head as a pail.
- Dodging from its path, he just avoided being spattered as a townswoman emptied a pail of night soil from a window overhead.
- He put her on the second floor, and a woman with a liver-colored birthmark on her face brought up a wooden tub, and then the water, pail by pail.
- Rich men had it piped into their homes; the poor filled their pails and buckets at public fountains.
- They had pails of soap and water, and were scrubbing at the floor.
- And a nice new pail for me to shit in, I don’t doubt.
- Qyburn dropped the bloody razor into a pail of vinegar.
- Lothor Brune was in the winch room, helping the gaoler Mord and two serving men wrestle chests of clothes and bales of cloth into six huge oaken buckets, each big enough around to hold three men.
- The chain uncoiled, rattling as it scraped across the stone, the oaken bucket swaying as it began its long descent to Sky.
- Some of the winch chains were fixed to wicker baskets, others to stout oaken buckets.
- When Robert climbed gingerly from the bucket, she knelt in a patch of snow to kiss his hand and cheeks.
- Jon had given his chief captive the largest cell, a pail to shit in, enough furs to keep him from freezing, and a skin of wine.
- Then it seemed to take forever to come to a rolling boil and twice forever to fill six wooden pails.
- “Another bloody bath?” said their serjeant when he saw the pails of steaming water.
- Two pails for Penny, two for Tyrion, and four for Ser Jorah, two in either hand. [. . .] He dropped the bucket down the well once more.
- They started back, each of the dwarfs carrying two brim-full pails of sweet water and Ser Jorah with two pails in each hand.
- Water sloshed from his pails with every stride, splashing round his legs, whilst his bells played a marching song.
- Tyrion set the pails of water on the ground, grateful for the halt.
- More refuse showered down from windows and balconies: half-rotted fruit, pails of beer, eggs that exploded into sulfurous stink when they cracked open on the ground.
- At the Green Fork, he had fought in mismatched scraps of plate from Lord Lefford’s wagons, with a spiked bucket helm that made it look as if someone had upended a slops pail over his head.