Everyone has heard the word “bar” used numerous times, as in bar association, bar admissions, and members of the bar. However, how many people actually know what this word means?

The word has a long history of use in legal circles and the mainstream. Derivations of the term are also widely known, such as disbarred. And many erroneous speculations abound about its etymology. 

However, the term has a clear, traceable history of development and use. Various reputable dictionaries and legal histories concur on most of the pertinent facts, and little about what the term means and where it came from is in dispute.

What is the Current Usage of “Bar”? 

Today, “bar” refers to a symbolic barrier would-be lawyers must cross to be considered professional attorneys. When seeking to practice law in a particular state or territory, a person must pass that jurisdiction’s bar exam. 

According to many legal history scholars, the symbolic line represents an actual partition or railing that existed in courtrooms, the purpose of which was to separate the public at large from the officers of the court. Gaining permission to cross over this railing means you’ve passed the bar.

There is also a part of the criminal courtroom that is specifically designated as the bar. For example, prisoners standing in a specific area of the room during a trial might be referred to as prisoners at the bar in some jurisdictions.

Another use of the word is in the term trial at bar. A trial at bar refers to a trial held in front of the entire panel of judges of a court or at least more than one judge. 

The term also refers to the group of lawyers who have passed a particular state’s bar. For example, a lawyer who has been admitted to the State Bar of Ohio is known as a member of the bar. 

Additionally, the term is used by various legal associations, such as the American Bar Association or the Cincinnati Bar Association. Membership in these groups does not necessarily require passing a bar.

Aside from the American Bar Association, the county and city associations are smaller than the state bars and don’t have anywhere near their authority. However, they are important groups that help regulate the legal profession. 

Looking at the term disbarred, you can recognize the word bar. It’s safe to say that a large percentage of the population knows the word and understands its basic meaning.

What Are the Origins of the Term “Bar”? 

Although many historians agree that the origin of the word is the railing in the old courtrooms, other scholars insist differently. These opposers argue that the sand bar at the entrance of the Thames River is the origin of the term, and passing over that bar meant you were now under the jurisdiction of the English. 

Then there are those who associate drinking establishments, i.e., bars, with the legal profession. This misconception comes from the image of barristers of old holding special sessions in taverns. Although the alcohol establishments and the legal establishment share this important word, scholars agree they have no connection. 

Raising the bar is another tempting phrase to credit with the origin of the term “bar.” It does make some sense, given the somewhat arduous road lawyers must trek to become official members of the court. However, this belief is also false. 

The railing of old courthouses, dividing the officer of the court from the audience, is the true origin. Its meaning continues to this day in practically every current use of the term. 

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