The Bush administration's proposed $700 billion bailout
of the financial industry is the talk of Washington right now. But
where exactly did the term "bailout" come from? In this special edition
of Wordmaster, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble turn to dictionary
editor, Ben Zimmer, for the answer.
ZIMMER: "Originally a bailout referred to a way that a pilot could get
out of a plane very quickly by opening up a parachute and parachuting
to safety. And that is spelled b-a-i-l-out in American usage, but
British speakers tend to spell it b-a-l-e-out. But either way, it then
became applied to financial situations, where a company or corporation
would have to be rescued in the same way that someone had to be rescued
from a plane, by making an emergency landing by parachute."
"My first thought when I would hear that term was maybe it had
something to do with a boat taking on water and you would bail it out.
You're saying it had to do with a pilot bailing out of a plane?"
ZIMMER: "Yeah, actually it is also related to the idea of bailing water
out. The general image is of letting something out. If you spell it as
b-a-l-e you can understand it as letting a bundle out, through a trap
door, for instance. You're --
RS: "A bale of hay."
ZIMMER: " -- bailing out that way. So it had these various senses
relating to just trying to get something out the door very quickly. But
the financial expression comes specifically from the idea of someone in
a plane needing to make an emergency parachute landing."
RS: "A jump to safety."
BEN ZIMMER: "Right. A 'golden parachute.'"
"Right, a golden parachute, what the CEOs get, right? And just briefly,
a golden parachute, since you brought that up, what exactly is a golden
BEN ZIMMER: "The idea is that as the company is
going downhill, as the company is about to crash, the CEO [chief
executive officer] or other executives get some very sweet deal to get
out of the situation. So they're not just being bailed out, but they're
getting a tidy sum of money. So that became referred to as a golden
parachute. Starting in the nineteen eighties we heard about that, where
sometimes there'd be a contract that was agreed upon so that if, for
instance, an executive -- not necessarily if that company was going to
go bankrupt, but just if the company was going to fire someone, the
executive would make sure that he or she had something in the contract
stating that they would get a very large sum of money if that should
happen. And that was also called a golden parachute."