Q: I’m bothered by the use of the honorific “Esq.” for a lawyer. I believe it should signify a gentleman. I’m also bothered that lawyers, both men and women, tack the honorific on their own names. It should be conferred by others as a term of respect, and only on men.
A: We wrote a brief blog item a few years ago about the use of “Esq.” as an honorific, but it’s time for an update that includes some history of how the noun “esquire” gave us this title of respect.
Before going on, however, we should mention that the title is treated differently in Britain and the United States, which has led to some confusion about the usage.
In our earlier posting on the subject, we cited A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, whose author, Bryan A. Garner, is both a lawyer and the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary.
For this update, we checked out the new third edition of the usage guide (now called Garner’s Modern English Usage), which reiterates that “Esq.” in American English “typically signifies that the person whose name it follows is a lawyer.”
“The mild honorific is used nowadays,” Garner’s notes, “with the names of men and women alike; it is incorrect, however, to use it with any other title, such as Mr. or Ms.”
The title, as you point out, should be conferred by others; it’s not proper legal etiquette to use “Esq.” to refer to oneself.
“Somehow, the idea has gotten out that Esq. is something you put after your own name,” Garner’s says, adding, “In fact, it is quite non-U for a lawyer to put Esq. on cards, stationery, and self-addressed envelopes.”
The reference also notes that in British English “esquire is used of any man thought to have the status of a gentleman.” (More on that later.)
The noun “esquire” has had an interesting history. It entered English in the late 15th century, borrowed from the Old French esquier, literally “shield-bearer,” and ultimately from the Latin scutum, “shield.”
In 1460, when “esquire” first appeared in writing, it meant a man belonging to the higher gentry, just below a knight, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The noun “squire,” from the same Old French word esquier, is much earlier, and was first recorded in writing in 1290.
In the feudal military system of the 13th century, a “squire” was “a young man of good birth attendant upon a knight,” the OED says.
In 1475, “esquire” was first used as a term in chivalry to mean the same thing: “a young man of gentle birth, who as an aspirant to knighthood, attended upon a knight, carried his shield, and rendered him other services.”
In later usages, “esquire” took on these meanings: an officer in the service of a king or nobleman (1495); an armor-bearer (1553); a landed proprietor or county “squire” (1597); a title accompanying a man’s name (1552-53); and a gentleman who attends (or “squires”) a lady in public (1824).
However, “esquire” does not precisely mean “gentleman” in Britain. As the OED explains, some authorities believe esquires fall into five classes:
(1) younger sons of peers and their eldest sons; (2) eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons; (3) chiefs of ancient families; (4) esquires by creation or office, such as judges, officers of state, military officers, justices of the peace, barristers-at-law; (5) esquires who attend the Knight of the Bath on his installation.
“The correctness of this enumeration, however, is greatly disputed,” the OED adds. “It would be impossible here to state the divergent views on the subject.”
As for “Esq.,” the OED says the title “is now commonly understood to be due by courtesy to all persons (not in clerical orders or having any higher title of rank) who are regarded as ‘gentlemen’ by birth, position, or education.”
The dictionary notes, however, that “in the U.S. the title belongs officially to lawyers and public officers.”
In summary, lawyers should not tack “Esq.” onto their own names. But in the US it may properly be used in reference to them – women as well as men.
Note that even in Britain, barristers may be entitled to “Esq.” after their names.
We hope this satisfies any lingering doubts you may have.