What’s Your Bailiwick?

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplas

We took a couple of weeks hiatus because our website was down. My friend Pete resuscitated us by updating some things (and I played hooky for a couple of extra days), and now we’re back and pretending it’s Wednesday, the day we talk about words and etymologies. (Thanks, Pete.)

The word bailiwick raised some questions in a recent conversation. When I wanted to verify the definitions of lunar eclipse and solar eclipse, Jewel, my beloved friend and esteemed editor, informed me that science was not her bailiwick. Perhaps it was in her wheelhouse, I suggested. When I asked what a bailiwick was, anyway, Jewel quipped that it must be a wheelhouse. Sadly for me, eclipses were in neither her bailiwick nor her wheelhouse. Lucky for me, the Lissemores came to the rescue, science being in their wheelhouse.

In my book about Father Dan Begin, I asserted that writing an entire book was not in his wheelhouse, an expression which provoked opposite reactions. One reader liked the expression but had never heard it before. Another reader recommended cutting it because it’s a cliché. What was a writer to do? Unfamiliar or too familiar?

Cliché or not, wheelhouse is one of those metaphors that most of us use without thinking. A wheelhouse is not a home for wheels, but denotes the part of a boat that shelters the person at the wheel. Pilothouse is another word for this space. The pilot, or steerer, is not concerned with the rigging and the stern and the gunwale. They are not in his wheelhouse. The wheelhouse is his or her bailiwick, in other words.

Bailiwick is a bailiff’s special domain. Wic-, an Anglo-Saxon suffix, means “village.” A bailiwick is the geographical area where a bailiff–an employee of a British sheriff–can make arrests and generally throw his or her weight around. Today’s court bailiffs have a smaller sphere of influence and may not even be aware that they have a bailiwick.

I would have surmised that bailiff derives from Anglo-Saxon, but I would have been mistaken. In Latin, a baiulus is a porter, and the verb baiulo means to carry a burden. A British bailiff’s job was frequently to deliver writs and summons, carrying those documentary burdens to and fro within his bailiwick.

Both wheelhouse and bailiwick describe your sphere, your area of expertise, what we might today commonly term your “comfort zone.” Comment below: What is yours? And which term do you prefer?

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8 Responses to What’s Your Bailiwick?

  1. Kathy says:

    Fran–Dung beetle questions are more your department. Niche. Specialty. (As well as many other areas.)

  2. Fran Lissemore says:

    I work at a hospital and interact with patients in a clinical setting but I’m not the kind of doctor who can help people. So when I get an actual medically-related question from a patient I sieze up and have to tell them whatever it is they want to know is not in my wheelhouse. I’ve never mentioned my similarly deficient bailiwick.

  3. Kathy says:

    Jewel–“Bailiwick” is a good word. I found the “bailiff” connection and was just going to go with that. I’m glad I looked further and found the “-wick” part.

    Tell me if this is right. Something is or is not your bailiwick. But it is in or not in your wheelhouse. (That is, we don’t say “in my bailiwick,” or do we?)

  4. Kathy says:

    Sarah–“Domain” is great, yes. Or our age group would refer to “our bag,” or we would have 50 years ago. I’ll check around to see want the millennials and younger say.

  5. Kathy says:

    Roger–I had never thought of either term’s origins until this post!

  6. Roger Talbott says:

    As someone who was not familiar with the term “Wheelhouse” (must have grown up too far from the Great Lakes to have heard it) I am delighted to read all this. I guess I had some vague notion that bailiwick and bailiff had something in common, but I was interested in the in the history of that role and the etymology of the word. Thank you. Like Jewel, I admit this landlubber still thinks of a house of wheels, too.

  7. Sarah Becker says:

    I think of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing as a bailiff (billed as a constable). Michael Keaton was absolutely fabulous in the 1993 Branagh film: rode an invisible horse. Nathan Fillion was less fabulous in the 2011 Joss Whedon adaptation, since he’s less funny than he thinks.
    I think Jerry Seinfeld would use the term “domain.”
    Those of us from the sixties might refer to “my thing.”
    What do the young people of today use?

  8. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    Love this post. I discovered my niche (substitute bailiwick or wheelhouse) quite by accident when I was offered an editorial job with a book developer in Princeton, NJ.
    I prefer the term “bailiwick” because it conjures up all things Dickensian. “Wheelhouse?” A place for wheels.

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