Dear Straight Dope:
This has a group of us at our office stumped. It's easy to find the etymology, or word history, of words like "alligator" or "laser," which most people don't use every day. What about more common words?
Specifically, we were wondering why here in the US we tend to call our favorite pubs or watering holes by the term "bars." Though many use actual bars as footrests, this couldn't possibly be the bar that you would "belly up" to. We've checked just about every etymology site that we could find on the Internet, to no avail. Can you help us?
SDStaff Lileth replies:
Hi, Robert. Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but the information I have was found by getting off the computer and opening a dictionary. Remarkable invention, that.
According to Webster’s College Dictionary, the word “bar” has 26 definitions. We only need to look at two:
1. a relatively long, evenly shaped piece of some solid substance, such as wood, or an oblong piece of any material.
This undoubtedly led to:
6. counter or place where beverages, esp. liquors or light foods, are served to customers.
This would indeed, be “the bar that you would belly up to.” It’s not too much of a stretch to see where referring to the entire establishment as a “bar” would come from.
As for the etymology, again, we look to the dictionary:
[1125-1225, from Middle English barre, originally from the Vulgar Latin barra rod, of obscure origin].
You can find a brief etymology of most words if you have a decent dictionary.
Now, take your newfound knowledge and try to win a few bar bets.
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