A Man Walks into a Bar…

… and says Ow!

It was an iron bar!


Sorry, I do love a good bad joke. But seriously, isn’t it interesting that this joke only works because we use the same word for two very different things? And if you think about it, the word bar has a lot of uses.

There’s the bar you can drink at, an iron bar, a bar to keep a door or gate closed, a sandbar in a body of water, and the Bar, meaning the legal profession as a whole. And those are just the nouns. It can also be a preposition, meaning except: We’re all going to the bar, bar him. He’s too young. And of course if you drink too much at a bar, or persist in telling bad jokes, you’ll get barred, bringing us full circle. Despite all these uses though, there’s a basic common concept behind them all, which you may have already noticed in some cases.

The word comes from the Old French barre, meaning beam, barrier, or gate. Very soon, it entered the English language, referring a beam or rod used to fasten a door or gate. And from here, it’s not hard to see how the word bar came to be used in relation to exception and exclusion, e.g. barring someone from a business, or using bar to mean except. And even though in other cases it’s not so obvious, this is the core concept behind most other uses of the word.

Obviously an iron bar comes from its similarity to a bar that fastens a door or gate, even if the object’s not used in exactly that fashion. A bar (as in a pub) is so called because of the counter over which drinks are served, which acts as a barrier between the staff and the public. We can still refer to the counter specifically in a bar as the bar, e.g. He’s sitting at the bar. A sandbar might be a simple strip of sand, but it might bar ships’ entry to a harbour.

Referring to the legal profession as the Bar, or saying that a lawyer is called to the Bar might seem the most unusual use of the word. However, it’s still related to more common uses of the word. The term originates from the bar at the Inns of the Court (the professional association for lawyers in England and Wales) which separated the Masters of the Bench (the governing body) from the regular lawyers and students. Once they’d reached a certain standing, students would be “called to the bar” to take part in important activities. And even though I’ve used the word lawyer twice in this paragraph, you might be aware that in England and Wales they’re known as barristers (at least those who serve mainly in court, as opposed to solicitors who deal more directly with clients). And this term also comes from this bar.

It’s a simple word, bar. Just three little letters, but it’s a great example of how a core idea can spread out and remain a basis for a variety of words, all sharing the same basic meaning at heart, which we can discover because they all share those three little letters.

4 thoughts on “A Man Walks into a Bar…

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