In American English, let's say we have something like

Dude, I want to leave this party. Let's bail.

This holds up in various American dictionaries (with the exception of to bale out of an airplane, train, etc.).

However, I understand that the same usage of "bail" in British English — meaning "abandon a commitment, obligation, or activity"¹ — is frequently bale. So my question is: How common is the spelling of "Let's bale" in British English, as opposed to "Let's bail"?

My free Oxford resource isn't specific. Is it 10%, 90%, or nobody keeps track because they're both equally accepted?


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    Lexico has: bale³ VERB British variant spelling of bail. – Weather Vane Aug 1 at 16:06
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    Does this answer your question? If my boat is sinking should I bale or bail the water out? – Mari-Lou A Aug 1 at 16:45
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    I would suggest it doesn't answer the question, because this question asks specifically about relative usages. – Andrew Leach Aug 1 at 16:46
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    Note that "bail" and "bale" mean two different things, with two different etymologies. – Hot Licks Aug 1 at 17:09
  • If you’re talking about bale, you might have written “Hay Dude”. (Not be confused with “Hey Jude” — time for me to bale out.) – David Aug 1 at 19:01

Bail out appears to be more common than bale out in BrE, at the moment at least. Ngram

Ngram of "bale out" and "bail out", BrE

Up to about 1970, the sources Google uses for this data had bale as more favoured; perhaps the influence of American English became more effective around that time.

The comparatively huge increase in bale out in BrE sources during the Second World War would indicate that aircraft were baled out of; changing the plot to include of in the phrases searched yields a graph of very similar shape.

By comparison, American English shows a similar hump for bail out during WW2, but bale out has always been less popular. The scale is the same as the first chart: note how bale is still relatively popular in BrE even now. Ngram

Ngram of "bale out" and "bail out", AmE

Just for good measure, the overall incidence of the phrase regardless of spelling has followed much the same profile in AmE and BrE over the years of Google's sources (Ngram), so the first chart shows how BrE spellings have swapped from bale to bail.

Comparison between corpora

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  • I understand that, when comparing US and UK English frequencies, Google N-Grams get their figures from books published in the US and UK respectively. In each case, are books published on one country, but written in the other, excluded or included? – Michael Harvey Aug 1 at 16:46
  • I have no idea; that's not in their information page. However, books written in one country and then re-published in another will generally be edited for spelling (so that AmE readers don't have to encounter words like colour). Thus these graphs should reflect usage in a useful way for this answer. – Andrew Leach Aug 1 at 16:51
  • Although it is not a scientific fact, it is my impression that US readers are more protected from traumatic or world-order-destroying transPondial spellings than UK ones. – Michael Harvey Aug 1 at 16:57
  • The Guardian will happily write of the US Department of Defense, whereas that august body often writes about the UK "Ministry of Defense". – Michael Harvey Aug 1 at 16:59
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    Unfortunately, nothing will protect Ngrams from the misprints of the Grauniad. – Andrew Leach Aug 1 at 17:01

I’ve lived in England my whole life and would consider “bale” to be incorrect; it’s “bail”.

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    Is this an opinion you can back up? I am never sure which way to spell it, and Lexico says I am not wrong either way. – Weather Vane Aug 1 at 16:14

The short version is, for the purposes of etymology, "bail" is preferred and "bale" is considered an error. There is a word "bale" but it has quite a different meaning.

(It is worth noting that in “The vessel was holed beneath the waterline and the crew bailed [out].” It is not possible to say if the crew jumped over the side or they tried to remove the water.)

The OED, in an entry that has not been as yet fully updated since 1895 gives:

bale, v.3

Etymology: Erroneous spelling of **bail v.4

To lade or throw water out of a boat or ship with buckets (formerly called bails) or other vessels. Const. to bale the water out, bale the boat (out). to bale up: to scoop up. See bail v.4

1842 F. Marryat Percival Keene I. xvi. 231 Let's bale the boat out first.


bail, v.4

Etymology: < bail n.5 Now often less correctly bale v.3 To lade or throw water out of a boat, etc., with buckets (formerly called bails), pails, basins, or other vessels. a. To bail the water (out).

1829 F. Marryat Naval Officer II. i. 14 One [man] to bail the water out.

You will note that both examples are from the same writer. The confusion deepens with the earliest mention:

1627 J. Smith Sea Gram. vi. 27 To baile or cast out the water.

This leads to:

1. to bail out.

a. intransitive. Originally U.S. Of a person: to make an emergency descent by parachute from an aeroplane.

1925 Oakland (Calif.) Tribune 1 Sept. 2 b/3 The..pilot who has to ‘bail out’ hurriedly from a crippled or burning plane.

1939 F. D. Tredrey Pilot's Summer 28 If you bale out and land in water..a smart rap will release the whole lot and you can swim free.

And the extended sense of

b. intransitive. colloquial. To leave hurriedly; to escape an unpleasant situation or abandon a burdensome responsibility. Also with of or on.

1941 R. Riskin Meet John Doe in Six Screenplays (1997) 623 Boy Midget. Come on, Snooks—you better bail out. Girl Midget. Goodbye, Mr. Doe!


c. intransitive. Originally and chiefly Surfing. To jump or dive off a surfboard in order to avoid injury when a fall seems imminent; to make a similar jump from a bicycle, skateboard, etc.

1962 T. Masters Surfing made Easy 64 Bailing out, getting off and away from the surfboard on purpose.

a1970 S. Afr. Surfer 1 ii. 27 in Stud. in Eng. (Univ. Cape Town) (1970) 1 32 Some kook dropped in on my best wave. He pearled as I came through a hot section. I had to bale out.

And finally we arrive at bail in the sense of to leave rather than stay; to desert; forsake [someone/something].

2. slang (originally North American).
a. intransitive. = sense 1b. Also with on.

1977 G. F. R. Filosa Surfer's Almanac 181 Bail,..to leave, depart, exit.

1982 M. Pond Valley Girl's Guide to Life 51 When you skip school.., it's cool to go, ‘like, I bailed, man.’ Or when you leave a party, you go, ‘Let's bail.’

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