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Grammar Girl #595. Bailiwick. “Side” Words.

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty. This
week, I have a tidbit about the origin of the word “bailiwick” and a meaty middle
about side dishes and other side words to get you in the mood for Thanksgiving.
Let’s get started. Have you ever asked someone for a favor and
been told, “That’s not my bailiwick”? If so, they turned you down. In short, they
said, “That’s not my specialty. It’s not something I’m good at, so you should
do it yourself.” As you started to work, alone and rejected,
you might have wondered, “What is a bailiwick, anyway?”
A “bailiwick” is an area that’s under the jurisdiction of a bailiff. In the US,
we think of a bailiff as an official who helps to keep order in a courtroom. They’re the
people who walk prisoners in and out of the room and escort the jury members to their
seats. But in Britain, a bailiff is more like a sheriff. He or she can make arrests, serve
court papers to a person, and seize the property of a debtor. (There’s also the term “sheriffwick,”
but it seems to have fallen out of favor sometime in the 1800s.)
An example of a real-life bailiwick is the Bailiwick of Guernsey, a set of small islands
in the English Channel. They’re part of England, but they have their own legislative
assembly, which is presided over by — you guessed it — a bailiff.
So the “baili-” in “bailiwick” refers to a bailiff. (In fact, another form of the
word “bailiff” was also “bailie,” but that’s also now obsolete.)
And the “-wick” in “bailiwick” is obsolete. This word used to mean a house or
dwelling-place, as well as a town, village, or hamlet. It’s a very old word, derived
from the Old English “wic.” We can trace it back to 900 CE and find it used in “Beowulf,”
in the phrase “wica neosian,” meaning “to go home.”
Over time, the meaning of bailiwick as an administrative region was extended to mean
one’s natural or proper sphere. For example, if a friend asked you to make pecan pie for
Thanksgiving, you could decline, saying that “baking isn’t your bailiwick.”
So that’s your tidbit for today. When you say, “It’s not my bailiwick,” you mean
it’s not my thing. It’s not something I’m good at or should be doing.
That segment was written by Samantha Enslen, who runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find
her at or on Twitter as @DragonflyEdit.
Before we get to our meaty middle about sides, thanks to our sponsor, Hello Fresh.
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code GRAMMAR30. That’s GRAMMAR and the numbers three zero. GRAMMAR30. And now, let’s talk about more food. with
this piece by John Kelly. We may talk a lot of turkey during the holiday,
but US Thanksgiving is really all about the sides. Yes, we pile our plates with mashed
potatoes and green beans, but we also feast on the many other great sides the English
language has to offer. During the holiday, both sides of the family
may gather together out in a relative’s home in the countryside. The cook may serve
up food on a sideboard, with the stuffing cooked on the inside of the bird.
At dinner, some may “take sides” of political controversy, while others may just
stay on the sidelines – of the American football game on TV, that is, where a ref
may flag a player who is offside. A distant aunt may pull an unsuspecting nephew aside for
some colorful side comments. That’s better than her husband, who corners a cousin about
the new siding on his house. Besides the family drama, too much food will split sides,
as will the convivial laughter. Celebrants can cap the meal with a postprandial snooze:
How about sideways on the sofa right by the fireside? The drowsiness is surely
just a “side effect” of all the turkey’s tryptophan – not the booze, of course!
English really dishes up the “sides.” This may not be surprising, as the word has
had a lot of time to develop in the language: the Oxford English Dictionary dates “side” back
to Old English, when, much as now, it named the sides of the body.
“Side” has many cognates in the Germanic languages, but its ultimate origins are unclear.
Proposing a Proto-Germanic root, philologist Walter Skeat has suggested an earlier, literal
meaning of ‘that which is extended.’ This is possibly connected to another early “side” in
Old English, this one meaning ‘long’ and ‘spacious.’
Let’s have a look at – er, taste of – some other particularly interesting “side” words
in English. If we have a hard time paying attention, we
might easily get sidetracked. This term is derived from the 19th-century side-tracks of
railroads. If we want to avoid a touchy topic, we might sidestep it
in a conversation, a word first recorded in military marches near the backside, shall
we say, of the 1700s. In such a conversation, we might digress with many sidebars, which
US journalists were using by the late 1940s to refer to articles secondary to the feature
story in a newspaper; the figurative sense was in place by the early 1950s.
A sideshow may have been – no hoax – a coinage of the great showman P.T. Barnum.
He refers to it as a ‘temporary enterprise’ alongside his main attraction, as the OED first
records the word in 1855. A sidekick is also first found in American
English. It’s back-formed from side-kicker, documented at least by the start of the 1900s for
a ‘close but lesser pal.’ The “kick” may originally have meant “to walk or wander,”
yielding “to kick around” or “kick about.”
Another stateside word is “sideburns.” This facial hair is named after Ambrose Burnside,
an American Civil War general noted for the particular way he groomed his whiskers. Here,
the OED quotes the “Cincinnati Enquirer” in 1875: “His whisker was of the Burnside type,
consisting of a mustache and ‘muttonchop,’ the chin being perfectly clean.”
Maybe you recall that records had A-sides and B-sides? Another term for the B-side was the “flip
side,” dated to the late 1940s.  The B-side typically featured the lesser track(s) of a recording,
although “on the flip” side lives on as a positive consideration of some matter.
Like “flip side,” we can also speak of the “upside” or “downside” of
some event. While “upside” and “downside” have long been in the language, these substantive usages
for ‘advantage’ and ‘disadvantage,’ respectively, trace back to the early 20th century,
when they were used to describe the movement of share prices in the stock market.
“Upside down” is far older, at least in sense. The OED dates it back to the 1300s,
but the phrase took a different form early on: “up so down.” Speakers shaped the
word into “upset down” and “upside down,” which stuck, since the usage of “so” was
unusual, the OED explains. “Sidle,” “to edge sideways,” also
features some curious linguistic changes at work. The verb is actually a back-formation of “sideling,”
which was an adverb meaning ‘sideways’ but whose “-ing” sounds like the progressive
tense or a present participle in English. In the word “sideling,” however, this “-ing” is
actually part of “-ling,” an old adverbial suffix in the language. Not to be left out, “-ling” got
confused with “-long,” (long) another adverbial suffix seen in “sidelong.”
Sports fans, especially of American football, may well be familiar with “blindsided.”
As the OED notes, the term, deriving from “blind side,” actually dates back to the very early
1600s, referring to the “weak side of a person or thing.” “Bedside manner” may
also strike some as a relatively new phenomenon, but it is in fact recorded by the mid-1800s.
Finally, two words that are surprisingly younger than many may suppose are “insider” and “outsider.” “Insider” is
documented by 1848 (and in the context of the stock exchanges), which makes it roughly contemporary to “sunny
side.” In an observation made last year by lexicographer
Peter Sokolowski, “outsider,” has been spiking in the American language due to the
political “outsider” status some Republican Party presidential candidates were touting.
Sokolowski also noted it appears in 1800 in a letter by Jane Austen (the OED attests
this, too), referring to some outsiders to a card game.
But like gravy, many like to keep their politics “on the side” on Thanksgiving.
This segment originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog. and appears here with permission.
John Kelly is an educator, writer, and word nerd who blogs about etymology at
and about Shakespeare at Thanks to the people who wrote reviews and
told me where they listen this week. Kooljer left a nice review at iTunes and Jaq (or maybe
pronounced Jock?) Listens in Lithuania where he teaches a university course on comic books.
He, along with other people, pointed out that Batman was originally referred to as “The
Batman,” which may help explain why “Batmen” seems to be the preferred plural in the Batman
universe. I’m going to be traveling for the holidays,
and I have some family stuff going on, so I’m going to be recording a bit ahead of
time and out of order for the next few weeks, which means I probably won’t have listener
shout-outs for a while, but know that I will still see your posts and reviews and enjoy
and appreciate them. It’s been a great year hearing from all
of you. Grammar Girl is part of the Quick and Dirty
Tips podcast network, and you can find all my articles and old podcasts at
If you’re looking for something new to add to your podcast list, check out my fellow
Quick and DirtyTips hosts. Maybe the Get-Fit Guy to get started working off all those side
dishes, or the Savvy Psychologist to help you cope with your family.
I’m Mignon Fogarty. That’s all. Thanks for listening.

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