Mind your language

Is the term ‘Esquire’ U or non-U?

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

‘I’m a learned doctor,’ cried my husband, pulling at the hems of his tweed coat and doing a little jig. He’d heard that Jacob Rees-Mogg had directed his office to use Esq of all non-titled males.

There’s something of the Charles Pooter about Esquire. Its last redoubt had been envelopes from the Inland Revenue. Since it became HM Revenue & Customs, honorifics have melted away.

Americans use Esquire principally of attorneys, who do creep into British notions of those reckoned by courtesy gentlemen, and hence called Esquire.

Deploying Esquire is a question of U and non-U language; the higher snobbism currently favours its disuse. But when Shakespeare and his father were granted arms, they were recognised as gentlemen. I’ve read that in Stratford, out of a population of 2,200, 45 were accounted gentlemen between 1570 and 1630. By then, to be armigerous was to be an esquire.

Armiger was originally the Latin for one who bore arms in the sense of bearing the armour of a knight one served as a squire. But armiger came to mean one entitled to his own coat of arms, and in the 16th and 17th centuries the English equivalent was esquire.

Yet to use esquire to mean someone entitled to coat-armour is ‘by accurate writers condemned as involving the confusion between esquire and gentleman’, said the Oxford English Dictionary loftily in 1891, when it last considered the matter.

Anyway, Esq goes directly after a surname, followed by post-nominal letters in a specified order. A most superior person might be George Ent Esq VC OM PC QC MA FRCS FRS MP. After Esq come Crown honours, of which VC precedes all, and OM stands not far down the list. Then come Crown appointments such as Privy Counsellor, followed by other appointments such as Queen’s Counsel. Next are university degrees such as Master of Arts. After those are medical qualifications such as Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons; only then do societies and professions get a look-in, led by fellowships. Seventh in this order of precedence comes the lowly MP.

Officials under Mr Rees-Mogg will be as unfamiliar with Esquire as with antimacassars, and I bet some will get it all wrong.

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