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shameless pleading

Pub, Tavern, Saloon, etc.

Tee many martoonies.

Dear Word Detective: When our forefathers arrived in America some of the first buildings they built must have been “pubs,” “taverns,” and “inns.” Then, as they headed out west seeking their fortunes, suddenly they wanted to drink in “saloons.” These days we mostly cannot be bothered with any of those places and drink in “bars.” Is there a difference between all these places, and why the sudden switch to “saloons” and then “bars”? I’m parched now, time for a drink. Cheers! — Pete Ivkovic.

Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place. My complete ignorance of all things alcoholic is unmatched in North America. What can I say? I just never got into drinking. Of course, that didn’t stop me from writing a column for a bartending magazine for several years, so fasten your seatbelts.

I thought the first sentence of your question might have been a bit of an exaggeration, but you’re right. Evidently, the first Europeans to land in North America were deeply into drinking. There was said to be more beer aboard the Mayflower than there was drinking water, even the Puritans loved a good snootful, and, according to the official Colonial Williamsburg website, folks there were hammered pretty much 24/7. Who knew?

“Tavern” is one of the older of the terms you cited, and first appeared in English in the 13th century meaning “a place where wine is sold to the public.” English had borrowed “tavern” from the Old French “taverne,” which in turn was derived from the Latin “taberna,” meaning “a shed constructed of boards, a hut, workshop.” That “taberna,” by the way, eventually also gave us the English word “tabernacle,” which is a definite step up from “hut.” Today “tavern” is exclusively used to mean “drinking establishment,” and, at least in the US, “tavern” has a somewhat more refined connotation than “bar.”

“Bar,” perhaps the most basic term for such places, dates to the late 16th century and comes from the barrier or counter over which drinks are served. This is the same “bar” as in common use meaning “long rod or barrier” and comes from the Latin “barra,” meaning “barrier.” A similar railing or bar separates lawyers, et al., from the public in courtrooms, and aspiring lawyers must pass a “bar exam” to join their ilk.

“Inn” comes from the Old English “inn,” probably related to our preposition “in,” and originally meant simply “house.” By the 14th century, “inn” meant “lodging house,” usually offering drinks as well. Today many places with “Inn” in their names are merely bars putting on airs.

“Pub” is simply short for “public house” (dating to the early 17th century), an establishment that is licensed to sell alcohol to be consumed on the premises by the public (as opposed to private clubs, etc.). In the US, “pubs” ordinarily also serve food.

“Saloon” (early 18th century) is an Anglicized form of the French “salon,” originally meaning a large reception room or hall, often in a hotel. That “big room” meaning has been carried over into “saloon” used to denote private railroad cars, large automobiles, or deluxe cabinsĀ  on ocean liners. “Saloon” meaning “place for drinking” dates to the mid-19th century. “Saloon” does imply a larger establishment than a simple “bar,” but the words are otherwise interchangeable.

As to why “tavern” and “inn” sound cozy to us, but “bar” seems seedy and “saloon” reeks of cowboys and breaking chairs, we can probably thank Hollywood. All these terms are essentially synonymous.

4 comments to Pub, Tavern, Saloon, etc.

  • Jeff Coleman

    Like you, I’m not a big consumer of alcoholic beverages. I have, however, come to learn what legally distinguishes a “tavern” from other facilities for on-premises alcohol consumption, at least here in Washington state. Namely, a tavern is limited to beer and wines sales; spirits may not be sold in a tavern. A “Public House” may sell spirits if properly licensed.

  • Moley

    Probably more beer than water aboard the Mayflower because the water would have been pretty much undrinkable (especially towards the tail end of the journey) and potentially illness-inducing, whereas the beer probably wasn’t that strong – “small beer” used to be weak enough even for children to drink freely.

  • Very interesting article, thank you!

    As a Brit by birth, now Australian, and fond of a pint or three, I remember as a child in the UK, that Pubs typically had two bars … One was labelled “Public Bar” and one “Saloon”.

    The Public Bar tended to be noisier, full of smoke, working people, mainly male. Clientele of the Saloon where typically older, better dressed, often couples, and the ambience was more refined with armchairs etc vs the hard wooden chairs in the public area. Bit ironic that the public area would be crowded while the quieter and more comfortable saloon was often much emptier.

    In those days ID was not asked for, so younger drinkers, would oft times frequent the saloon bar where you were unlikely to encounter neighbours, teachers etc.

  • Raphael Adams

    You mentioned that in the US, ‘tavern’ has a somewhat more refined connotation than ‘bar’.
    As an ex-Montrealer,this comment raised my eye-brow a centimetre or two. Thirty years ago, a tavern was a testoserone-intense establishment that the word ‘refined’ has never been applied to. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then women were not allowed, but smoking and burping and swearing was. The decor was spartan (small round wooden tables and four wooden chairs) and the ‘food’ even more so. It was all about the beer.The waiters, who were all called Red, wore leather aprons and could serve 20 glasses of Molson (or Labatt’s) at a time. When the Canadiens were playing, the TV was on, but that’s the closest it came to being a sports bar. It was wonderful. I miss it.

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