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Esquire this and Esq. that. Or: A stuffy, didactic trifle under 1,000 words

0322-Esquire-Bubble-400By Adam T. Johnson     

In 2015, when I still had some green behind my ears—and not nearly the size of paunch that I now boast (the kind you can rest a Big Gulp on whilst second-chairing)—I wrote a short piece for the then-existing Tips & Traps page of Bench & Bar on the topic of the honorific title “esquire” (“On the use of ‘esquire’,” B&B Dec. 2015). At the time, I observed a breach of good form and custom among many of my fellow lady and gentleman lawyers in their use of the term as applied to themselves. Almost weekly I was receiving emails or letters signed, “John Mouldycastle, Esq.” And I bethought, “Does John Mouldycastle not know that this term is reserved for honoring another and not oneself?”

It would be of no moment if my tips from 2015 had been in vain. If the mere status quo had persisted, I might have chosen to take up some other cause—perhaps an article on the failing fashion of Hush Puppies as court slippers, or the merits of returning to “unpublished” opinions. But it appears that “esquire” is a kind of Hydra, capable of growth at treble rates. The succeeding years have witnessed exponential expansion in lawyers running around and pretentiously propounding themselves as “esquires” everywhere—in books and magazines, on business cards, letters, briefs, and baubles, and throughout the internet, practically everywhere save friendship bracelets and promise rings. This practice of taking a knee in tribute to oneself is almost as irritating as the solo practitioner whose website is littered with references to “Our Lawyers,” or solicitations from sham companies offering vanity awards, like The Top 2,000 Lawyers Under 2,000 Who Make Barely $2,000. “Esq.” is everywhere; it is in the very wind. So I write again—pedantically, and perhaps even Sisyphiciously—but with a not ignoble project, I assure.

To begin, it is fitting to at least identify the meaning of the term. Its usage is diverse, both throughout time and across lands. For example, Dr. Johnson’s and Dr. Deuce-Ace’s definitions of esquire are anything but in parity. And on top of that, the meaning of the word has evolved. Whereas it was once employed to identify the heir to a knight, it is now boldly associated with any number of American precinct crawlers. It is thus necessary to place this word in its proper context—with an eventual mind for its contemporary usage—while giving some regard for its origins.

“Esquire” is a derivative of the Latin word scutarius, which originally had the meaning of “shield bearer.” By the Middle Ages, “scutarius had given rise to the French word esquire[,]” and the “word is representative of French feudalism and its two class system of noble and ignoble, or lord and serf.”1 There is a long history involving kings, queens, knights, a Norman Conquest, coats of arms, new property owners, and a new class of “gentlemen,” with the eventual creation of a feudal system that defined at least four classes of “esquire.” 

Suffice it to say that by the time of Blackstone’s Commentaries (and in fact even before), the word “esquire” was used as a title of dignity to denote a station above “gentleman” and below “knight.” Additionally, it was an official title given to sheriffs, sergeants, barristers at law, justices of the peace, and some others.2 Because of this quasi-egalitarianism, the popularity of the term (and its Latin form Armiger) increased. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare needled those who made pretentious use of it:


Robert Shallow: Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make a Star Chamber matter of it. If he were 20 Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire.

Abraham Slender: In the county of Gloucester, Justice of Peace and Coram. 

Robert Shallow: Ay, cousin Slender, and Custa-lorum. 

Abraham Slender: Ay, and Rato-lorum too; and a gentleman born, Master Parson, who writes himself Armigero, in any bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation, Armigero. 

Robert Shallow: Ay, that I do, and have done any time these 300 years.3


Over the course of time, “esquire” became so commonly used in England “that it was... used in correspondence abbreviated as ‘Esq.,’ as an alternative to ‘Mr.’”4 This practice was continued in the English colonies of the Americas. According to attorney Ted N. Pettit, “It became customary to append the title to attorneys at law in addressing them by letter.”5 And while the American Revolution largely rendered titles of social distinction obsolete, the “tradition of describing certain officials as esquires lived on mainly due to the common legal heritage of the United States and England.”6 American attorneys have latched on ever since, and the term is “an honorary title, used as a courtesy to both male and female lawyers.”7

In South Carolina Lawyer, Scott Moise created a short “English Test for Lawyers.” Among the questions is the following:


QUIZ

Fatima A. Zeiden just graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and wants to have cards and stationery made. Choose the correct name for her business documents:

(A) Fatima A. Zeiden, Esquire

(B) Fatima A. Zeiden, Esquiress

(C) Ms. Fatima A. Zeiden, Esquire

(D) Ms. Fatima A. Zeiden, Esquiress

(E) Ms. Fatima A. Zeiden

(F) Fatima A. Zeiden

(G) All are correct

The correct answer is (F). This is because, as Bryan Garner describes in A Dictionary of Modern Usage, “the term ‘esquire’ is not used on oneself.”8 Nor is it proper etiquette to use other honorific titles, such as “Mr.” or “Ms.” along with “Esquire.” One is enough. As I wrote in 2015, Mr. Thomas Coffin is fine, as is Thomas Coffin, Esq. But Mr. Thomas Coffin, Esq. is flat out. “Esquire” should not adorn a business card, nor a signature block. It should not adorn one’s website. It should be reserved for honoring another and not one’s person. To all my Armigeros: Stop this insanity!



ADAM JOHNSON practices criminal defense at Lundgren & Johnson, PSC, in Minneapolis. 


 

Notes

1 Ted N. Pettit, “ ‘Esquire’ and Discrimination in the Legal Profession,” 2-JUN Haw. B.J. 22, June 1998.

2 Blackstone’s Commentaries 406.

3 William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act I, Scene I.

4 Supra note 1.

5 Id.

6 Id.

7 “Back by Popular Demand: English Test for Lawyers,” 22-SEP S.C. Law. 49, September 2010.

8 Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modem Usage 327 (2d. ed. 1995).

 

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