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The word bailiwick goes back to the 1400s or so, originally used to describe the jurisdiction of a bailiff — who, back then, was someone hired to assist the sheriff. Today, however, the word is often used metaphorically to describe someone’s area of expertise or authority. I almost always see it used in the negative or adversative, such as “That’s not really her bailiwick,” or “That’s outside my bailiwick.”

Etymologically, you can divide the word neatly in two: The first half is from the Old French term for bailiff, and the second is from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning town or village. (The latter is undoubtedly the same suffix that shows up in place names and surnames like Berwick, Hartwick, Warwick, Fenwick, and Eastwick.)

So it’s a useful term for your vocabulary, not to mention a series of sounds that’s pleasant to say. But why do I like the word so much?

When I was thirteen, my parents bought me a subscription to a puzzle magazine called Games, and I became immediately enthralled. Every issue included articles, brain teasers, game reviews, and other delicious content, but I loved the magazine most because it introduced me to so many types of wordplay. Sure, it contained your run-of-the-mill crosswords and word searches — but there were also all manner of inventive puzzles that played with words and letters in just about any way imaginable: cryptic crosswords, word spirals, word flowers, word rummy, and lots more. Early on, I couldn’t complete many of the puzzles; nevertheless, I was hooked. Even today, when I’m gearing up for a plane ride, I make sure my carry-on contains a mechanical pencil and a fresh issue of Games from the newsstand.

What, you ask, does this have to do with the word bailiwick? Well, one recurring puzzle in the magazine featured a list of five-letter sequences plucked from inside common English words. The goal was to identify the source word for each string of letters. For example, given the clue TCHST, you had to come up with the word matchstick. Or, for EETOT, the solution might be teetotaler.

When you look at bailiwick, perhaps you first see the words bail and wick — solid words, so normal they’re downright boring. But me? My eye goes right to the three i’s at its middle, with only the lovely liquids l and w to separate them. And all I can see is trickery, because (as I’ve thought many times) the clue ILIWI would be quite a stumper. Gaze at the word long enough, and the dots of those lowercase i‘s just might start to wink and nod, like wildflowers in the English countryside, mischievously expressing their agreement.



May 2010
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