A Google news search for the word “bailout” turns up more than 70,000 hits. Yet I hold in my hands a dictionary that says there’s no such word. It’s an edition of the “Oxford Universal Dictionary” that was last revised in (here comes the rub) 1955. And now that you know the year, you won’t be as surprised to learn that my 2002 “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” emphatically disagrees: “bailout. 1. a helping out of one in difficulty. 2. a providing of government financial aid to a failing company, city, etc.”
Word origins can be mysterious, eluding even experts. But compounds, words that are basically a fusion of two words commonly used together, are a lot less mysterious. They’re often formed over time as word pairings become so common that people start to see them as single units. That’s when they become single units.
The trick to them has nothing to do with tracing their evolution. It’s keeping track of which terms are one word, which are two, which are hyphenated — and trying not to go nuts in the process.