The Grammarphobia Blog

A stormy courtroom

Q: I’ve read of people being “hauled,” “haled,” and even “hailed” into court. How do you rule on these usages?

A: People who get themselves into a fix can be either “hauled” or “haled” into court.

They’re only “hailed” if their entrance is accompanied by a warm welcome or a chilly meteorological event.

In A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes that the “haul” and “hale” versions of the phrase are “equally common.”

Google agrees: “hauled into court,” 372,000 hits, versus “haled into court,” 344,000. (The “hailed” version, described by Garner as a “solecism,” gets 108,000.)

So why, you may wonder, do we have two similar words— “haul” and “hale”—for dragging someone into court?

The story begins with “hale,” a venerable old word that has undergone a few changes over the centuries.

It was first recorded in writing in about 1205, according to the Oxford English Dictionary

Back then, its meaning was “to draw or pull along, or from one place to another, esp. with force or violence; to drag, tug.”

So once upon a time, miscreants were “haled” into court or “haled” before a magistrate.

But why are they now also “hauled” into court?

Because several hundred years ago the old verb “hale” was mostly replaced by “haul,” which showed up in the 16th century as a new version of “hale”—same meaning, different spelling.

Apparently the difference in spelling came about because of a shift in pronunciation.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains that the “u” spelling represents a development in Middle English pronunciation in which vowel sounds shifted and spellings changed.

However, the verb “hale” can still be found in 19th-century literature in the old sense of pulling or dragging.

In 1879, for example, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of oxen “patiently haling at the plough.”

And, of course, the verb “hale” is still being used in the old legal sense.

A Feb. 18, 2003, article in the New York Times, for instance, refers to health insurance companies “haled into court.”

Here’s an aside. The verb “hale” shouldn’t be confused with the adjective “hale” (healthy, sound, uninjured).

English borrowed the verb “hale” from the Old French haler (to draw or pull), and the French got it from old Germanic sources.

But the adjective “hale,” as in the expression “hale and hearty,” is derived from the Old English hal (healthy), which is also the ancestor of “heal” and “whole.”

Another word to throw into the pot is “hail,” which is both an interjection (as in Shelley’s “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!”) and a verb meaning to salute, greet, or welcome.

This comes from an Old Norse word, heill (health, prosperity, good luck), which is the Norse counterpart of the Old English hal.

And no, the “hail” that’s frozen rain is no relation. It’s a very old term, dating from Anglo-Saxon times, and similar to words in other Germanic languages for those pellets of falling ice.

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