An odd thing happened the other day. I was reading an article on a website about land-based engineering of all things (for work, mind, I don’t read that sort of thing for kicks) and in that article was the word bailiwick. The exact sentence was:

We consider our bailiwick to include:

  • Agriculture
  • Horticulture
  • Forestry
  • Amenity
  • Environment

I also checked my emails to read my word of the day (provided by and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the very bailiwick. It would seem there’s no other explanation than the gods of language or Titivillus or plain old destiny wanted that word examining for Word Stories.

So here it is: bailiwick two meanings. The first is ‘the district or jurisdiction of the bailie or bailiff’ (thanks, while the second is ‘one’s sphere of operations or area of interest.’

You can see how bailiwick and bailiff are related. The bail part comes from Latin bajulus, meaning ‘porter’, via Vulgar Latin *bajulivus, meaning ‘official in charge of a castle’, via the Old French baillie, meaning ‘bailiff’.

English borrowed the Old French baillie and added the Old Saxon suffix wic onto the end. Wic meant ‘house, dwelling place’ and then went on to mean ‘villiage, hamlet’ so that the bailiwick literally meaning the village or area of the bailiff. It’s easy to see that the specific bailiwick meaning became more general to mean the area of operations or interest for any person, thus giving the second meaning (and the one used by land-based engineers, evidently).

Wic meaning ‘villiage’ or ‘place’ is still around in lots of words, especially place names, such as Warwick and Hampton Wick. In certain dialects, it went on to take the meaning of ‘farm’. So Gatwick isn’t actually a large British airport, but a goat farm.