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What Is a Bailiwick?

Believe it or not, when you say something isn't your bailiwick, you can trace that word—"bailiwick"—back to something like a sheriff.

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
November 16, 2017

a ghost town to illustrate that the word bailiwick is related to sheriff

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 “bailie,” but that use is now obsolete.)

The “-wick” in “bailiwick” is also 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.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

Dent, Susie. Bailiwick. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Guernsey (subscription required, accessed November 10, 2017).

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Bailiwick, bailie, bailiff, wick, wike (subscription required, November 10, 2017).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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