Dear Word Detective: Yet another of my friends graduated from law school a few months ago and is now studying for the bar exam, which gives me plenty of opportunities to make bad jokes about the tutors who hang out down at the local dive. Yesterday I was about to make a joke about the phrase “moaning of the bar,” which I remembered from a poem about death we read in school, when I realized that I didn’t remember what that “bar” was. I’m also not entirely certain what the “bar” in “bar exam” is, either. Can I get a twofer? — Arnold S.
Yeah, sure, it’s a slow day. You really shouldn’t mock your pal, though, given the critical shortage of lawyers our nation is facing. Um, why isn’t there a rim-shot key on my keyboard? Anyway, the poem about death you vaguely remember is “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who also penned such upbeat, toe-tapping classics as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (“Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.”) and “Tears, Idle Tears.”
Alfred was a moody fellow, to put it mildly, and spent an inordinate amount of time staring glumly at the sea, which inspired (if that’s the right word) “Crossing the Bar.” The first stanza sets a somber tone: “Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea.” (I don’t have room for the whole thing, but, trust me, it doesn’t get any cheerier.) The “bar” is a sandbar, a ridge of sand or silt often found at the entrance to a harbor or where a river joins the sea. Tennyson is using putting out to sea as a metaphor for death, the “bar” being the boundary between life and death he must pass over. At low tide, waves break on the bar with the sound of “moaning” (like the moaning of wind) and a ship’s passage out of the harbor is difficult. Tennyson wishes for a high, swift outbound tide making for easy passage out into the “boundless deep” of death, where he hopes “to see my Pilot face to face When I have crost the bar.” Alrighty then, anyone for cake?
Passing the bar exam and being admitted to the bar have, thankfully, nothing to do with Alfred’s Grim Reaper Regatta. The “bar” to which larval lawyerfolk aspire is the officially recognized legal profession, joined by passing an examination and petitioning the licensing authority for admission. “Bar” in this sense is a metaphorical reference to a literal bar, the wooden railing separating the spectator section in a courtroom from the persons actively involved in the court action (prosecutors, defense counsel, jury, judge, etc.). “Bar” has been used in this sense since the 14th century, and in the British system lawyers who appear in court are called “barristers” (“bar” plus “ster,” forming an agent noun) as opposed to “solicitors,” who render legal advice, etc., to clients. “Bar” is also used to mean the legal profession as a whole (“The Bar, the Pulpit and the Press Nefariously combine.” 1695).