A word taster walks into a bar

But which bar? To say bar is crowded doesn’t begin to cover it. Once you unbar the door on this word, the murmuring rhubarb and baragouin of rabble from barbarians to barristers presents at the very least an embarrassment of riches and at most becomes a rebarbative barrier. You get far more than you bargained for.

For not only does the basic word bar, from Latin barra, “long and narrow piece of material such as wood”, have an assortment of extended senses through association with shape and with occasions of use (the barrier marking off the judge’s seat in a courtroom, or the one over which food and drink are served in a tavern, for instance), but there are a few other words bar (a kind of fish for one, and for another a unit of pressure – from Greek βάρος baros “weight”), and there are hundreds of places where bar shows up in unrelated words. We may look beyond the dictionary, too, into the bargeload of quotes at

So let’s force our way into this bar and see what bodies pack it. It could be a cocktail bar or a biker bar or a singles bar, but it’s not just a snack bar; it’s as crowded and festive as a durbar. As we embark, we barge into Barney, a barrister from Barbados, in a Barcalounger with a bargello pattern; he is eating a plate of barbecued barramundi with Hubbard squash. He is celebrating a plea bargain.

There is Barbara from Barcelona, who was never called to the bar because she was once behind bars (something to do with barbiturates – phenobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital); there is a barfly in a Babar T-shirt who used to work with Barnum and Bailey but had lumbar problems and, after bariatric surgery, became a barber; there is a bard named Barkley (who can’t read a bar of music) who is calling a barn dance in a baritone over a barrage of barking – someone’s having an argy-bargy – they want twelve-bar blues; there’s some barmy barnacle trying to barter a barbell and a barometer for a bit of the barley, but all he can bargain for is a barmecidal barberry pie. A baroness (bar sinister?) who was barred from a bar-mitzvah on a sandbar is barfing into a barrel.

Under a Barbizon-style painting we talk with a candy-bar-munching Lombard who’s studying the effects of cinnabar (or is it barium) on Epstein-Barr virus (or was that Guillain-Barré syndrome) in Malabar (or Nicobar or Zanzibar); the results are still embargoed. He is embarrassed by the syllabary we pull out of our scabbard and bombard him with.

And then, in the midst of this sybaritic scene, someone knocks out the power bar and everything goes fubar. They try to bar the door but we push the safety bar and escape to the barren exterior, where everything comes to a voiced stop and a diminishing liquid – with a low-central vowel in between.

Go raibh míle maith ag Laurie Miller for suggesting bar on the bar day of bar days, St. Patrick’s.

5 responses to “bar

  1. The Romance languages have words derived from Latin ‘barrus’ – an elephant (elephantus) which as far as I know hasn’t any cognates that filtered into English.
    Latin: barrus ‘elephant’
    Late Latin: barrire (barritus: ‘warsong of the Germans’)
    Spanish: barritar
    Italian: barrire (barrito: call of an elephant)
    French: barrir and baréter (barrissment: sound of an elephant)
    Shared Romance verbs ‘to trumpet’ (like an elephant)

  2. It would be impious to suggest that baritones sound like elephants, though I have hear a few that do. However, this word comes form the Greek βαρύτονος, ‘deep-sounding’, and Aristotle applied it to dogs (Physiognomica 813b.2).

  3. I forgot about the series of children’s books by Jean de Brunhoff and later a Canadian cartoon series
    “Barbar the Elephant”

  4. Oops, sorry didn’t make the connection! Us ‘separated by a common language foreigners’ sometimes gloss over a lot of North American cultural references …too readily in this case, apologies!

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