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Esquire, as I understand it means "mister." But in modern usage it is an abbreviated American appendage to names that indicates one is a lawyer, and it is used for men and women. How did that happen?

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etymonline.com/index.php?term=esquire "Originally the feudal rank below knight, sense broadened 16c. to a general title of courtesy or respect for the educated class, especially, later, in U.S., for lawyers." –  MετάEd Mar 13 '13 at 2:39
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"indicates one is a lawyer:" Only an Americanism; even then does not "indicate" lawyer, just used with names of lawyers in the US. Esquire (abbr. esq.; syn. squire, mister, sir) in "English" continues to be a kind of honorific appendage 'A polite title appended to a man's name when no other title is used, typically in the address of a letter or other documents.' see also, oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/esquire –  Kris Mar 13 '13 at 6:26
    
@Kris It does indicate that one is a lawyer in the US. You are not allowed to use it otherwise. –  KitFox Mar 13 '13 at 16:18
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@coleopterist has 'sourced' it adequately. As to why US lawyers adopted it, my guess would be that at the Revolution many of them held it, by birth or office, as J.P.'s, and that after the Revolution they retained it as an indication of professional standing, since most did not hold degrees which would entitle them to a professional title like Dr or Rev. And it's likely that nobody else had any use for a title which was in origin a sign of unAmerican rank, not calling. –  StoneyB Mar 13 '13 at 22:35
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@KitFox Allowed, by who? Is it illegal in the US to use esq. after a name other than of a lawyer? StoneyB has an interesting take on this as well. Coleopterist quotes, "that person may be presumed to be a lawyer." –  Kris Mar 14 '13 at 5:15
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

According to Wikipedia's page for Esquire:

According to one typical definition, esquires in English law included:

  • The eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons in perpetual succession
  • The eldest sons of younger sons of peers, and their eldest sons in perpetual succession (children of peers already had higher precedence)
  • Esquires created by letters patent or other investiture, and their eldest sons
  • Esquires by virtue of their offices, as Justices of the Peace and others who bear any office of trust under the Crown
  • Esquires of knights constituted at their investiture
  • Foreign noblemen
  • Persons who are so styled under the Royal sign manual (officers of the Armed Forces of or above the rank of Captain in the Army or its equivalent)
  • Barristers (but not Solicitors)

A slightly later source defines the term as

Esquire — A rank next below that of Knight. Besides those Esquires who are personal attendants of Knights of Orders of Knighthood, this title is held by all attendants on the person of the Sovereign, and all persons holding the Sovereign's commission being of military rank not below Captain; also, by general concession, by Barristers at Law, Masters of Arts and Bachelors of Law and Physic.

This practice presumably travelled across the pond where it was, over a period of time, abandoned by everyone except lawyers.

This topic is covered in an article in the American Bar Association's ABA Journal on the ethical ramifications of the use of the title by lawyers.

In Opinion 1995-14 (1995), the committee traced the origins of esquire to the Middle Ages, when it was a title conferred on candidates for knighthood in England. Later, the term was extended to other mid-level dignitaries, including sheriffs, sergeants, justices of the peace and “barristers at law.”

In the United States, esquire over time came to refer “commonly and exclusively” to lawyers, stated the opinion, but how that happened is a mystery. The only certainty, the committee stated, is that “based on common usage it is fair to state that if the title appears after a person’s name, that person may be presumed to be a lawyer.”

So, while lawyers were one among many professionals who were using the suffix back in Merry England, it's unknown why only lawyers continue to use it in the US.

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Esquire (in BrE) means not sir- it's a default title for somebody who doesn't otherwise have a title.

I suppose some American lawyer wanted to sound important and didn't understand the irony.

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Agree with 'wanted to sound important and didn't understand the irony.' lol –  Kris Mar 13 '13 at 6:19
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Some American lawyers appear to be a pompous lot. LOL2. –  Blessed Geek Mar 13 '13 at 7:21
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It isn't just a pompous AmE title; it is a specific indication that that lawyer has passed the bar examination in the state of practice, according to tradition as told me by my father-in-law, who was a lawyer. –  KitFox Mar 13 '13 at 15:35
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@KitFox: I'm an attorney, but I know of no bar rule or regulation that applies to the use of the abbreviation "Esq." after one's name. I think if non-lawyer used it he would not be charged with practicing law without a license, but it would have to be shown that he actually held himself out to be an attorney in a more definite way. –  Bruce James Mar 13 '13 at 16:31
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So how did the lawyers get to "own" a common English suffix going back centuries? It's like the Berkeley Feminist Collective legislating that only its members are allowed to use Ms. –  mgb Mar 13 '13 at 16:50
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SUPPLEMENTARY TO coleopterist's ANSWER:


Instructions of Sir Henry St. George, Clarenceux, to Thomas May, Chester Herald, and Gregory King, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, and Henry Dethicke for the 1682-83 Visitation of Worcestershire.

 In the allowance of titles, you shall enter the persons whose descents you take, with no other titles but such as they may justly and lawfully bear according to the Laws of Arms. And you shall allow the title of Esqr. to these and no other :—

 1. The heir male of a the younger sons of Noblemen.
 2. The heir male of a Knight.
 3. Officiary Esqrs., viz., such who are so made by the King by putting on a collar of SS.,
    or such who are so virtute officii, without that ceremony, as the High Sheriff of a
    County, and a Justice of the Peace, during their being in office or commission ; with this
   caution, that you always enter the said office or qualification in speciall [sic] terms.

 As for Sergeants at Law, Doctors in Divinity, and dignified Prebends, you shall register them by those titles or qualifications only, but you shall accept them in quality as an Esqr.
 Barristers at law you shall enter by that title, but you shall accept them as gentlemen only unless otherwise qualified to bear the title of Esqr.

SOURCE: The Heraldry of Worcestershire (1873), by H. Sydney Grazebrook, Esq.; Of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-Law, Author of the “Heraldry of Smith,” &c., &c. I, xlviii-xlix.

Grazebrook adds that “Barristers are now always accounted esquires, their right thereto being sufficiently attested by the fact that the Court of Common Pleas refused to hear an affidavit, because a barrister named therein was not called esquire ; and now all the Courts invariably require counsel to be so styled.--See Burke’s Patrician, v., 114, and Bythewood’s Conveyancing ii., 386, where the question of “Who is an Esquire?” is discussed at length.”

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