The Latin word scuturius means “shield-bearer” and turned itself over time into the French esquier. The British made the word into esquire and used it to describe a noble but murky social standing: better than average, but worse than best… like its cognate squire, a man apprenticed to a knight but not quite knighted himself. In any case, the implication is of gentle – but not gentlest – birth.
In old English registers, esquire was used to distinguish slightly brighter stars of the social cosmos from more dim ones (mere gentlemen). The difference was usually one of patrimony: esquires were born, gentlemen were made (usually by themselves). The classification was of upper versus lower gentry. Or, old money versus new. Those accorded the English esquire were generally:
- The eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons, in perpetuity,
- Esquires created by investiture,
- Esquires created by virtue of their office, like magistrates,
- Foreign noblemen,
- British army officers above the rank of captain, and
- Barristers (but never solicitors, those dull worms).
That last bit jumped the Atlantic. In America, the title esquire is reserved for men’s magazines and practitioners of law (though Yanks make no distinction between barristers – trial lawyers – and the much duller solicitors – transactional lawyers). The Brits remain more tight with the suffix; the Office of Arms there restricts the use of Esq. to a very small set, whereas Americans restrict its use only when rampant overuse could reasonably lead a person to believe a non-lawyer is engaged in the practice of law.