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If a criminal is bailed but goes on the run instead of returning for trial, they are said to have "jumped bail".

2 - jump bail
informal - Fail to appear for trial after being released on bail:
he jumped bail and was on the run until his arrest

When was "jump" first paired with bail to create this phrase?

None of the dictionary definitions of 'jump' carry the sense of avoidance other than to perhaps skip over something, whether literal or metaphorical. Even then, it would seem that it is not the actual "bail" they are avoiding; more like they are 'extending' their bail illegally?

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    One skips the trial and hops it. Aug 10, 2016 at 16:46
  • That much makes sense, until you consider that they are skipping the trial and not the bail, no?
    – Ste
    Aug 10, 2016 at 16:47
  • That wasn't too serious a comment, but the sense of a jerky, violent even, transition from one state to another (or escaping from a bondage) makes sense. Compare 'spring someone from jail'. Aug 10, 2016 at 16:52
  • Seems like it might be related to claim jumping, in the sense of stealing instead of hopping. Stealing from the bondsman that is.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 10, 2016 at 17:15
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    An good question and also why 'jump', 'skip' and 'spring' in the circumstances mentioned by others? There's a variant in the OED: Baildock Obs f. Bail: barrier] at the Old Bailey, London (formerly) 'a small room taken from one of the corners of the court and left open at the top; in which, during the trials are put some of the malefactors' and 'James Goodman made his escape .. by leaping over the spikes of the bail-dock...(1716)'. That said, I wonder if theres a nautical or livestock handling link, Bails were sometimes fences, and also the sides of ships (hence bailing water out..).
    – John Mack
    Aug 17, 2016 at 14:47

3 Answers 3

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I'm not sure exactly where this usage of jump came from, but in general it is common to use this verb to indicate figuratively some sort of sudden, illicit movement. The jump in to jump bail is definitely of this form, as in the individual has 'jumped' free, or out of, their bond.

Your example is similar to the phrase to jump ship, which was originally used to refer to sailors who abandoned their position on a ship while it was in port, and is now a common idiom for abandoning some kind of role or duty.

Other examples of the verb to jump being used figuratively to indicate something criminal include

  • to jump the queue/line = to push in ahead of your turn (OK not exactly criminal, unless you come from the UK!)
  • to jump someone = to attack someone
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  • Jump the Gun = to cheat or get a false start / Claim Jumping = to steal a claim
    – ed.hank
    Aug 11, 2016 at 2:37
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Jump bail

  • To default on one's bail (1872+ Underworld)

(The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition)

also Skip bail:

  • Or jump bail . Fail to appear in court for trial and thereby give up the bail bond (paid to secure one's appearance). For example, I can't afford to skip bail—I'd lose half a million , or We were sure he'd jump bail but he finally showed up . This idiom uses skip and jump in the sense of “evade”. The first dates from about 1900, the variant from the mid-1800s.

The expression is from criminal slang as suggested above. According to Criminal Slang: The Vernacular of the Underworld Lingo the verb jump could refer to "an illegal seizure", from which probably the usage of "jump bail".

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On a few occasions, verbs of movement do take a direct object (or what syntactically appears to be a direct object) which however functions as an ablative: flee the country, fly the coop, jump ship, etc. Flee the country means "escape from the country_". Analogously, jump the bail means "escape from (the state of being on) bail".

I believe this is an interesting phenomenon (and have not bee able to unearth any discussion thereof), but one of syntax, rather than etymology.

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