The Grammarphobia Blog

An Aramaean walks into a bar

Q: I’m curious if anybody has discovered a link between the English word “barring” and the Aramaic bar. I believe the Aramaic term, which means outside, is the source of the English word. The “bar” in “bar mitzvah” technically means “son of,” which refers to the son being outside the father (bar is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew ben).

A: We’ve discussed the word “barring” on our blog in connection with phrases like “barring fire or flood” and “barring unforeseen circumstances.”

But we didn’t consider the etymology of “barring,” which in the phrases above is a preposition meaning “excluding from consideration, leaving out of account, omitting, excepting, except,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The usage was first recorded in the late 15th century. Three centuries later, people began using the shorter form “bar” in a similar way, as in the common phrase “bar none.”

The OED suggests that this shortening of “barring” to “bar” was influenced by two other prepositions— “save” and “except,” which are shortened versions of “saving” and “excepting.”

The prepositions “bar” and “barring” developed from a similar sense of the verb “bar,” meaning “to exclude from consideration, set aside,” according to the OED.

This sense of the word, dating from the late 15th century, is descended from the original, 13th-century meaning of the verb—to make fast with bars.

The verb “bar” came from the earlier, 12-century noun, which originally meant “a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate, door, hatch, etc.,” the OED says.

Today, the noun has three principal meanings: (1) something, like a rod or band, that’s longer than it is thick or wide; (2) something that obstructs or confines, like the related word “barrier”; and (3) a place enclosed by a rail or barrier, which explains the use of “bar” in reference to courts of law.

That third meaning, according to the OED, also led to the use of “bar” for “an inn, or other place of refreshment.” Initially, the dictionary says, the term referred to a “barrier or counter, over which drink (or food) is served out to customers, in an inn, hotel, or tavern.”

The etymology of the English noun “bar” is a bit skimpy.

The OED says the word (first spelled “barre”) came into Middle English in the 1100s from the Old French barre, which acquired it from the Late Latin barra.

The big question here is, where did the Late Latin barra come from? The OED says it’s “of unknown origin.” And with that, unfortunately, the trail goes cold.

It may be true, as you suggest, that the English “bar” comes from Aramaic (a wide family of related Semitic languages and dialects). But we can’t find any evidence of a definitive connection.

The noun pronounced “bar” in Aramaic means “son” or “son of” and is common in names. Though it appears in Hebrew names and in the phrase “bar mitzvah”—“son of the commandment”—the normal Hebrew equivalent of “son” is ben (the Arabic is ibn).

However, it’s interesting to note that there is a preposition in Aramaic, pronounced “bar min,” and meaning “except for,”  “aside from,” or “outside of.”

You can find the Aramaic preposition (transliterated as br mn), along with citations from ancient texts, in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, which has been a work in progress at the Hebrew Union College since 1986.

Certainly the existence of that Aramaic preposition raises enticing possibilities. But, as we’ve said before, mere similarity is not proof of an etymological connection.

Ancient texts are always being rediscovered, though, and perhaps one of them will someday offer evidence that Aramaic is indeed the source of the Late Latin noun barra. We could then claim an ultimate Aramaic ancestor for the English “bar” and “barring.”

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