Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 26, 2009

Etymology Corner: Bars, Pubs, Clubs, and Other Fun Places, in Many Languages

By Jon Aske, Foreign Languages

In a Spanish composition I was recently reading, a student wrote that she had gone to a bar during her spring vacation. She referred to the bar in Spanish as “la barra” (feminine) instead of the actual word “el bar” (masculine). Obviously she had picked up the wrong choice of translation from the dictionary, for both are possible translations of the English word bar, each one for each of the two main senses of this English word: bar, the drinking place, and bar, the long, metal object. This got me thinking about the word bar and its history, and it occurred to me that there might be some interest among our readers about the origins of terminology for public establishments.

Although the connection may not be clear to most people, it turns out that the two senses of the word barthe long metal (or even chocolate) object and the drinking establishmentare related, and the second meaning actually derives from the first. The reason should be obvious to anyone who frequents such establishments, for traditionally along the length of the counter where drinks are served runs a long metal bar. So the bar became metonymically the name of the whole establishment. By the way, the term bar in legal contexts, as in for example “passing the bar (exam)” is also related to a metal bar, namely the one that traditionally divided the bench where the judge sat and the area where the lawyers did.

etymology1The English word bar (both meanings) comes from the Vulgar (that is, popular or spoken) Latin word barra, meaning “rod”. Classical (written) Latin did not have this word and it is not clear where popular Latin got it from. Like many other English words from Latin, the word bar came into English through French, in the 12th century. Spanish, of course, being, like French, a language derived directly from spoken Latin, did not borrow the word barra the way English did. But eventually, much later, it did borrow back the word bar to refer to the drinking establishment, while keeping the word barra to mean the counter at the bar (besides the rod meaning). Spanish certainly didn’t borrow this word because it really needed it, since Spanish has many words to refer to drinking establishments, such as taberna, bayuca, bodegón, borrachería, buchinche, chingana, tabernería, and tasca.

Before leaving the word bar, let me mention the origin of the word barbecue (also spelled barbeque, Bar-B-Q or BBQ). This word is not historically related to the word bar at all, as its spelling might suggest. English got this word from Spanish barbacoa. But Spanish got it from a native Caribbean language, probably Taino, in which it was used to describe the framework for supporting meat over a fire. According to Merriam-Webster it entered English in 1709.

The word pub is short for public house, a place where carriages used to stop for passengers to get a rest. From English the word spread to other languages, Spanish included. But, as you have probably already guessed, the word ‘public’ is not a native English word, but a borrowing, this one also from Latin. You may have noticed that most English words are borrowed, and most borrowings are from either Latin or French, which is a language that derives from popular Latin. When French or Spanish borrows from English they are just taking back words that English borrowed from them at one point. English borrowed the word public from Latin through French in the Middle Ages. The Latin word was publicus, which is the adjective form of populus “people”, from which come English borrowings “people” (borrowed through French peuple) and “popular” (borrowed from the written classical Latin word). The Spanish equivalent is pueblo “people; town.”

The international word restaurant (restaurant in French, restaurante in Spanish, etc.) is also an interesting word. It is related to the verb restore and the noun restoration. The word originated in France in the 17th century, when restaurants, in the modern sense of the word, first appeared. Supposedly, a Parisian soup-vendor named Boulanger started selling hearty soups by the name of restoratives in 1765 and he hang up a sign outside his shop which read, in Latin: VENITE AD ME VOS QUI STOMACHO LABORATIS ET EGO RESTAURABO VOS “Come to me, you who labor in the stomach, and I will restore you.” The idea stuck and from this RESTAURABO (future tense of RESTAURARE “to restore”), came the word restaurant “restoring.”

etymology2Another popular public establishment is the (night) club, so I thought you might like to know the origin of the this word too. English club comes from Middle English clubbe, from Old Norse klubba; akin to Old High German kolbo, meaning “a heavy usually tapering staff especially of wood wielded as a weapon.” The word entered English in the 13th century from Danish (many Danes settled in England at the time) with the meaning of big stick. This meaning is still present in Modern English in the phrase golf clubs. Eventually the word came to mean an association of people. How this happened is not clear. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests that this perhaps has to do with another sense of the original word, namely “clump”, which can have the meaning of things brought together. From English the new sense of the word (association) spread to other European languages in the 19th century and the word club is quite international now.

Before there were clubs and bars and restaurants, there were taverns. This venerable institution seems not to have done too well in the US, as compared with bars. The tavern is still a very important establishment in parts of Europe, where they serve as regular meeting places for people, much like bars do in Spain, for example. The English word tavern, Webster’s dictionary tells us, comes from Middle English taverne, which took it from Old French, and comes originally from Latin taberna meaning “hut, shop.” It was borrowed in the 14th century. Most people wouldn’t know the difference between a bar and a tavern, though a tavern sounds old fashioned and there aren’t many taverns nowadays. In most places taverns cannot sell hard liquor, which is more profitable than beer, which is why not many tavern licenses are sold.

I hope this brief account of several popular English words has proven instructive and interesting for you. It should have given you a sense of some of the reasons why English has so many words that have similar counterparts in French and Spanish. Such words are called cognates in the language pedagogy world, although the meaning of the word cognate for linguists is more restricted: cognates are native (not borrowed) words that derive from a common ancestor, such as the word mother in English and the word madre in Spanish or mère in French, a fact that is due to the fact that all three languages can be traced back to a common ancestor, long gone, which we call Indo-European. If you like to learn about the history of words (etymology) you will find plenty of information online. There are many etymology blogs, such as Technorati reports that there are currently 294 of them. But very often all you need to satisfy your linguistic curiosity is a visit to an English dictionary that has etymological information, such as Merriam-Webster’s. Have fun! ¦


  1. […] Etymology Corner: Bars, Pubs, Clubs, And Other Fun Places, in Many Languages By Jon Aske, Foreign Languages […]

  2. Is the word “tavern” related to “tabernacle”?

  3. Indeed! I’m glad you asked. The word tabernacle (main meaning: “a tent sanctuary used by the Israelites during the Exodus”) comes from Latin tabernaculum (meaning “tent”), which is diminutive of taberna (meaning “hut”). To tell you the truth, I think taverns can make pretty good sanctuaries. -Jon Aske

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