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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."
    – MetaEd
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 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
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 6:26
  • @Kris It does indicate that one is a lawyer in the US. You are not allowed to use it otherwise.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 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. Commented Mar 13, 2013 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
    Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 5:15

7 Answers 7

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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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  • Minor addition: Graduates of Oxford are "honorary gentlemen" and entitled to "Esquire". So I was told back in the day, that I am an Esquire, though I am none of the things listed. I am not a gentleman by birth, more of an oik really.....
    – David Pugh
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 11:24
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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
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 6:19
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    Some American lawyers appear to be a pompous lot. LOL2. Commented Mar 13, 2013 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.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 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. Commented Mar 13, 2013 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
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 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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I'm an attorney, admitted to the bar over 20 years ago in California, and I practice in-house (not in a law firm). Depending upon the content and intended reader of my correspondence, I may deliberately sign my letters and emails with my name, followed by "Esq." because I want it to be obvious that I am a practicing attorney, and the correspondence may be protected by the attorney-client privilege. It's intended to be an obvious signal to the immediate reader - and in any potential litigation - that the correspondence might be protected as legal advice and should be reviewed before disclosure. My two cents. JT

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American attorneys are Johnnies-Come-Lately who have unilaterally attempted to appropriate the term to identify themselves, but as has already been pointed out, this is a more recent event than the original meaning of esquire that continues through today. Untitled sons of nobles along with gentry below the rank of knight are identified by using Esq. after their names. Normally, this includes armigerous men without noble titles of their own. There are some men in the US who bear honorary British arms who appropriately use the Esq. suffix if they chose to do so and who are not attorneys. An since their rights to the suffix predates that of attorneys in the US perhaps they use it even more appropriately.

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  • Welcome to ELU, please add a source to support your answer.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 18:40
  • What do you make of the use of "Esquire" in reference to barristers in Britain? Isn't that the probable source of the custom among U.S. lawyers of attaching the term "Esquire" to themselves?
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 21:55
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I note, as a supplement to StoneyB's supplement to coleopterist's answer, the following passage from Thomas Blount, The Academie of Eloquence Containing a Compleat English Rhetorique, Exemplified with Common-places and Formes Digested into an Easie and Methodical Way to Speak and Write Fluently According to the Mode of the Present Times (1654):

The youngest Sons of Viscounts and Barons are but Esquires, yet are honorable, and take place of all Baronets and Knights.

The eldest Son of a Baron is but an Esq during his Fathers life.

Esquire (comes from the French Escuier, in latin Armiger or Scutifer i. a bearer of Armes, or of a Sheild, and) is that Degree of Gentry, which is next to a Knight; It is conceived that at the first these Esquires were bearers of Arms to Lords and Knights, and thereby had their name and dignity: Now to be true Esquires according to the Law of Armes, they must either be Lords younger Sons, Baronets or Knights eldest Sons, members of Parlement, Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, Serjeants at Law, Barristers at Law (yet the late Earle Marshall would not allow Barristers to be Esquires, but in the Act for Polemoney they were ranked by the then Parliament as Esquires and paid as Esq) or of some ancient family that has it by being heir to a Knight in the right line; Though now a dayes (I know not by what warrant) all Gentlemen that have but some considerable Estate in Lands, take that title upon them, when as the Estate (though never so great) adds no title. And that the title of Esq should descend from Father to Son (as the Estate of Gentry doth) is meer fabulous, saies Mr. Herne in his Glory of Generosity, p. 100.

Polemoney was evidently a poll tax exacted from prospective voters according to a sliding scale depending on each person's occupation and social status. Such a tax was enacted under Charles I in 1641 to pay for raising an army in England to quell uprisings in Ireland and Scotland, according to Wikipedia—but whether that is the Act for Polemoney that Blount mentions in the excerpt above, or whether he has in mind an earlier enactment of "polemoney" I cannot say.

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My speculation is that this usage in America may be related to Attorneys being considered officers of the court. The United States eliminated any recognition of nobility, peerage, or other titles granted by birth. When the United States became independent this was an important step as the United States sought to have citizens, rather than subjects. Therefore, my speculation is that this title survived in the United States, but only as it relates to an earned marker of a profession and not of parentage.

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  • Hi, and welcome to ELU. Please take the tour and consider how you might improve your answer. As it stands, this sounds like opinion; can you support it with citations?
    – Davo
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 19:01
  • This does not explain why the title is, in the U.S., used exclusively for lawyers, and not for other professionals. It is also not clear what the citizen-subject distinction has to do with the question.
    – jsw29
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 21:00

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