Dear Straight Dope:
How does a person go about getting the title of Esquire?
SDStaff Dianne replies:
Become either a lawyer or the son of a British nobleman. The online dictionary says:
[Middle English, from Middle French escuier squire, from Late Latin scutarius, from Latin scutum shield; akin to Old Irish sciath shield]
First appeared 15th Century
1 : a member of the English gentry ranking below a knight
2 : a candidate for knighthood serving as shield bearer and attendant to a knight
3 — used as a title of courtesy usu. placed in its abbreviated form after the surname
4 archaic : a landed proprietor”
Now you might ask: what allows one to use this title? Is there a ceremony? Is it conferred by a university? Is it just some affectation that snob-nosed folks use? Can I be Joe Blow, Esq. just because I like the ring to it? Or do I need to get authorization, and if so from what? from where?
The answer is that any snob in the world (or at least in the U.S.) can use the title. In fact, “squire” is a contraction of “esquire.” I went to Black’s Law Dictionary and they say (5th Ed., p. 489): “In Eng. law, a title of dignity above gentleman and below knight. Also a title of office given to sheriffs, serjeants, and and barristers at law, justices of the peace, and others. In the U.S., title commonly after the name of an attorney; e.g., John J. Jones, Esquire.” The entry for Gentleman reads: “In its Engl. origin, this term formerly referred to a man of noble or gentle birth; one belonging to the landed gentry; a man of independent means; all above the rank of Yeomen.” (Id. at 618.) Knight means: “In Eng. law, the next personal dignity after the nobility.” (Id. at 783.)
Now of course in England there’s this whole business about hereditary nobility and getting knighted and all that, so it might be a little risky to start calling yourself esquire there. (Although what’s going to happen? The Snob Cops arrest you?) But we’re not in England, we’re in America! The land of the free, the home of the brave! You can call yourself anything you want … although you do take the risk that you will be thought a snooty jerk. Since this has never bothered lawyers, they have gotten into the habit of calling each other esquire. This is a little like elected officials addressing each other as “honorable,” which to me seems a classic case of advertising something after it’s gone. But I digress.
Among lawyers, it’s thought pretentious if you signs yourself “Esq.” in written communications but you are supposed to dignify other lawyers with the appellation. So a lawyer’s letters go out, “Yours very truly, Snidely Whiplash” but the envelope comes back addressed to “Snidely Whiplash, Esq.” Also, you never put “Ms.” or “Mr.” in front of the name when you use “Esq.” Still, this is strictly custom, and even if you never saw the inside of a law school there’s nothing to prevent you from calling yourself esquire … except the fact that you might be thought a lawyer.
SDStaff Dianne, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board (Esq.)
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