The Grammarphobia Blog

A lawyer walks into a bar

Q: My question, should you care to consider it, is which came first—the “bar” where attorneys work or the “bar” those attorneys may frequent after work?

A: We briefly mentioned the connection between one “bar” and the other in 2014, but we didn’t go into detail. To make a long story short, the “bar” at which you practice law came before the “bar” at which you drink.

Etymologically, however, they’re the same word. So here’s the longer story.

The noun “bar” (first spelled “barre”) came into Middle English in the 1100s from the Old French barre, which acquired it from the late Latin barra (“bar” or “barrier”).

In English, the word’s original meaning was “a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate, door, hatch, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. All other senses of the word are derived from that.

Today the noun “bar” has three overall meanings, roughly having to do with its physical shape, its purpose, and the area it defines.

So broadly speaking, the uses of “bar” fall into these categories: (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 defined by a rail or barrier.

That third group of meanings explains the use of “bar” in reference to the courtroom as well as the saloon. Various legal meanings date from the early 1300s, the OED says, and the drinking sense from around 250 years later.

The earliest known “bar” in the courtroom sense indicated “the barrier or wooden rail” separating the judge’s seat from the rest of the court, the dictionary says. This was where the barristers, litigants, prisoners, and others stood to address the judge.

In the reign of Edward I, when French was still spoken in English courts, the term “a la barre” was recorded in two legal documents dated 1306, according to the online Middle English Dictionary. Soon afterward the term was Anglicized, “at (or to) the bar.”

In the first recorded English use, this “bar” was “the place at which all the business of the court was transacted,” and the term soon became synonymous with “court,” according to the OED. So “at the bar” meant “in court.”

The dictionary’s earliest quotation is a reference to “countours in benche that stondeth at the barre.” (In Middle English, “countours” meant “pleaders.” The source here is a 1327 collection of political songs.)

In the sense of “bar” as the place where a prisoner stands for arraignment, trial, or sentence, Oxford‘s earliest example is from an indefinite time in the 1300s:

“Brynge forthe to the barre that arn to be dempt.” (The word “dempt” meant “condemned.” This is from a cycle of medieval mystery plays, Ludus Coventriae.)

Quite early on, the word was used figuratively to mean any kind of tribunal, as in this OED citation from the Wycliffite Sermons (circa 1375):

“Ech man mote nedis stonde at þe barre bifore Crist” (“Each man must needs stand at the bar before Christ”).

In the mid-1500s, “to be called to the bar” first meant “to be admitted a barrister,” the OED says. (A “barrister,” first spelled “barrester,” was a person called to the “barre.”)

Originally, however, this particular “bar” was in the classroom, not the courtroom. Here Oxford explains what “bar” meant to law students at the Inns of Court in the 1540s:

“A barrier or partition separating the seats of the benchers or readers from the rest of the hall, to which students, after they had attained a certain standing, were ‘called’ from the body of the hall, for the purpose of taking a principal part in the mootings or exercises of the house.”

After 1600, this was “popularly assumed to mean the bar in a court of justice.” In an OED citation from 1650, “call’d to the Barre six yeares agoe” means qualified to practice law six years ago.

“The bar” also began to mean barristers as a group in the mid-1500s, and within a century it was used for the profession itself. The term “bar association” originated in the US in 1824, the OED says; the American Bar Association was formed in 1878.

All this has made us thirsty, so let’s move on.

The “bar” meaning the place where one goes to drink came along in the late 1500s, and here again it originally implied some sort of barrier.

This is the OED‘s definition: “A barrier or counter, over which drink (or food) is served out to customers, in an inn, hotel, or tavern, and hence, in a coffee-house, at a railway-station, etc.”

This “bar” also means “the space behind this barrier, and sometimes the whole apartment containing it,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation is from Robert Greene’s “The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching,” a 1592 pamphlet in defense of cheating and petty theft:

“He was well acquainted with one of the seruants … of whom he could haue two pennyworth of Rose-water for a peny … wherefore he would step to the barre vnto him.”

Here’s a handful of later examples:

“[I] laid down my Penny at the Barr … and made the best of my way to Cheapside.” (Joseph Addison, the Spectator, 1712.)

“He sees the girl in the bar.” (Frederick Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful, 1834.)

“A bottle of champagne quaffed at the bar.” (From the American notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1837.)

We mentioned above that “bar” can be traced to the Late Latin barra, but nobody seems to know where barra came from. The OED says it’s “of unknown origin.” And with that, unfortunately, the trail goes cold.

It may be true, as some have suggested, that the ultimate source is Aramaic, a wide family of related Semitic languages and dialects.

An Aramaic preposition pronounced “bar min” (transliterated as br mn), means “except for,”  “aside from,” or “outside of.” But we haven’t found any evidence of a connection.

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