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What is a Bailiwick?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “bailiwick” has two senses. The first, older sense means an area under the supervision of a bailiff, a type of legal official whose role varies, depending on the nation. In the second sense, the term is used to describe an area of knowledge or skill, which is why you hear statements like “gardening is really Susan's bailiwick, not mine.” A few modern bailiwicks still exist, most notably in the Channel Islands of the United Kingdom.

The term is derived from the French bailie, a court official who was appointed to supervise an administrative district which was known as a bailliage or sénéchal, depending on the region. These officials were expected to oversee the justice system, collect taxes, and perform other administrative tasks. In England, the concept of a bailie was adopted, and these men became known as bailiffs; a number of Crown officials were called bailiffs, including sheriffs, tax collectors, and mayors.

By 1460, people were referring to the area under the supervision of a bailiff as a bailiwick, forming a compound from the words “bailiff” and “wik,” which meant “village.” Incidentally, “wik” is also the root in words like Greenwich, or “green village.” These administration districts were usually small, to allow the bailiff to keep an eye on the activities of all the citizens. The bailiff ensured that the authority of the Crown was upheld in his bailiwick, often with the assistance of an assortment of officials who performed various tasks.

In modern times, some people refer to a sheriff's administration area as a bailiwick, and in some regions a bailiff still sits in authority over a bailiwick. In most regions, however, the tasks of the bailiff have been broken up, and they are now supervised by a range of officials in a variety of districts. For example, taxes may be collected on a national basis, while law enforcement issues are handled by police forces.

In the second sense, a bailiwick can be an area of experience, influence, expertise, interest, or study. The term generally implies a broad and thorough scope, much like that of the bailiffs of old. In other words, if you casually play crosswords, you would not say that crosswords were your bailiwick, but if you completed the New York Times Crossword faithfully every day and studied the history and construction of crosswords, you could rightfully claim that crosswords were indeed your bailiwick.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Misscoco — On Sep 24, 2011

I've never heard the word bailiwick used as a reference to a hobby or ability to do something thoroughly and often as a part of your life. I always used the word "expertise." But bailiwick is a fun word to use. I think I'll try it sometime and see if others have heard of it.

I could say that water color painting would be someone's bailiwick if they painted several times a week, taught a painting class, understood the concept of color, and knew a lot about famous watercolor artists.

By Esther11 — On Sep 23, 2011

It's interesting to see how a word or concept that is very old, changed and developed throughout the centuries, but today it can be recognized as coming from a source long ago.

Like the idea of an official taking care of certain aspects of a small geographic group of people - a bailiff collecting taxes,seeing that rules were followed, and taking care of the legal needs of the community.

As communities grew, the division of labor expanded and assistants were added. Now, today so many of the administrative duties are done by the federal government or the state government. But still some laws and policies are supervised by small community officials in counties or by special boards.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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