What does ‘esquire’ mean? How lawyers assumed the knightly title.

In formal correspondence and in court opinions, attorneys are given the title esq., short for esquire. This seems like an odd honorific, as historically esquires or squires were either young men who helped knights with their armor or low-ranking nobles. How did American attorneys come to adopt this title?  

The word squire derives from scūtum, Latin for “shield” – squires were “shield-bearers” for medieval knights who hoped to become knights themselves. These men were called squires for most of the Middle Ages, but esquire began to appear in the 15th century.

Confusion arose at this point because another group of people were also “shield-bearers” – the British aristocracy, who had been granted coats of arms that they could wear on an escutcheon (a fancy French heraldic word for “shield”). Men near the bottom rank of the British nobility, who had such arms but lacked a title such as “baronet” or “gentleman,” were called esquires.

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