Why does English have so many words for 'lawyer'?

The solicitor general reports to the attorney general, who heads the Department of Justice. The president’s lawyer is the White House counsel. Why? 


English has lots of words for members of the legal profession. The head of the U.S. Justice Department is the attorney general, and the solicitor general reports to him or her. The president’s lawyer is called the White House counsel, while those who argue cases before the Supreme Court are advocates. All sorts of lawyers can identify themselves as esquires. According to the American Bar Association, there are 1.3 million lawyers in the United States. That’s more than the number of mechanical engineers, firefighters, and garbage collectors combined. Could this bounty of litigators be why English has so many different words for lawyer

No, but lawyer jokes have been around since the plays of Aristophanes, circa 400 B.C. We have so many terms for them because of the convoluted development of the English and American court systems.   

Lawyer has been the general, catchall term for “a member of the legal profession” since the 14th century. Though it looks a bit odd, it’s simply a form of the regular -er and -ier suffixes that make “employment nouns,” as in farmer and cashier.

Today, the British legal system divides lawyers into two groups, solicitors and barristers. In the U.S., solicit and its derivatives have become disreputable. While it’s still possible innocently to “solicit donations,” the verb is tainted by an association with prostitution, and the noun is rarely used except on door signs that warn “No solicitors,” e.g., no one may knock to sell a product or tout a candidate. 

In Britain, solicitors (first used in the 16th century) originally worked only in a particular branch of the legal system, the courts of equity; today they are lawyers who advise clients and arrange settlements “behind the scenes” but don’t argue cases in court. 

If you have seen pictures of men and women in black robes with white wigs perched precariously over their real hair, those are barristers. Barristers are basically lawyers who take cases to trial, and the only kind authorized to work in Britain’s High Courts. The word originated in the organization of medieval law schools, which had a physical bar that separated novice students from lecturers and more advanced students. When a budding lawyer was deemed proficient enough, he was “called to the bar” – he was allowed to sit on the outside of it while he argued a case – and thus became a “barrister.” By the 16th century, “the bar” had become a metonym (a term that substitutes for a related one) for the entire legal profession. This is why lawyers in the U.S. must pass the bar exam, and why when dishonest attorneys lose their license they are disbarred.

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