Esquire (abbreviated Esq.) is a term of British origin, originally used to denote social status. Within the United States, it is used as a postnominal honorific by licensed attorneys and by some naval officers and fraternal organizations. Ultimately deriving from the medieval squires who assisted knights, the term came to be used automatically by men of gentle birth. The social rank of Esquire is that above gentleman. More specifically, though, a distinction was made between men of the upper and lower gentry, who were "esquires" and "gentlemen" respectively (between, for example, "Thomas Smith, Esq." and "William Jones, Gent."). A late example of this distinction is in the list of subscribers to The History of Elton, by the Rev. Rose Fuller Whistler, published in 1882, which clearly distinguishes between subscribers designated "Mr" (another way of indicating gentlemen) and those allowed "Esquire."
Thus, practically speaking, the term "esquire" may be appended to the name of any man not possessing a higher title (such as that of knighthood or peerage) or a clerical one. In practice, however, "esquire" in the US is most commonly assumed by lawyers in a professional capacity; it has come to be associated by many Americans solely with the legal profession.
Regardless of to whom it is applied, the term "Esq." should not be used when talking about oneself, or in directly addressing somebody else. Rather, it is used in third-person contexts, such as business letterhead and when addressing an envelope.
But the precise limits of these vague terms were never easy to determine. Some authors attempted to draw up guidelines distinguishing "esquires" from "gentlemen".
According to one typical definition, esquires included:
A slightly later source defines the term as
However, formal definitions such as these were proposed because there was, in reality, no fixed criterion distinguishing those designated 'Esquire': it was essentially a matter of impression as to whether a person qualified for this status. William Segar, Garter King of Arms (the senior officer of arms at the College of Arms), wrote in 1602: "And who so can make proofe, that his Ancestors or himselfe, have had Armes, or can procure them by purchase, may be called Armiger or Esquier." Honor military, and civill (1602; lib. 4, cap. 15, p. 228). (By Armes he referred to a coat of arms; it is not clear from this quotation whether Segar made a distinction between esquires and gentlemen.)
The breadth of Esquire (as Esq.) had become universal in the United Kingdom by the late 20th century, for example being applied by some banks to all men who did not have a grander title. Although the College of Arms continues to restrict use of the word Esquire in official grants of arms to a limited set (smaller even than that outlined by the list above), it uses the term Esquire without restriction in addressing correspondence. Many people in the United Kingdom no longer perceive any distinction between "Mr" and "Esquire" at all and so, for practical purposes and in everyday usage, there is no such distinction.
Although 'Esquire' is the English translation of the French 'Ecuyer', the latter indicated legal membership in the nobilities of ancien régime France and contemporaneous Belgium, whereas an esquire belongs to the British gentry rather than to its nobility.
Modern UK Usage: To be used with the name in initial format - e.g. S.J. Hooper, Esq. - it is still used by many offices of the Chairman in business and also many traditional carriage trade businesses such as Christie's and Berry Bros. & Rudd. This rather old-fashioned usage is generally employed to imply that the addressee would be of the gentry by the mere fact of the sender's interaction when addressing those without another, higher, rank or title. British men invited to Buckingham Palace receive their invitations in an envelope with the suffix 'Esq' after their names while men of foreign nationalities instead have the prefix 'Mr' (women are addressed as 'Miss', 'Ms', or 'Mrs'). The same practice applies for other post from the palace (e.g. to employees etc.).
As a matter of custom, the suffix "Esq." is not used when referring to sitting judges, who are "members of the bench" rather than "members of the bar", and are prohibited from practicing law in most United States jurisdictions. Judges will generally assume the prefix "The Honorable" (abbreviated Hon.) as a title of respect.
These legal associations in America, although strong, have not completely blotted out the unmarked use of "esquire" in the modern British fashion, as an honorific simply an alternative to "Mister" (Mr.). In some states, however, using the term deceptively — in a manner that might lead others to assume you are licensed to practice law in that state — can be used as evidence of unauthorized practice of law. The term is also traditionally used when addressing naval officers in formal correspondence.
The form of address "Esq." is not used in the first person. It is used only when the reference is in the third person, such as addressing an envelope, making a formal introduction, or on business letterhead. "Esq." is never used with any prenominal form of address, such as Dr., Mr., or Ms.. Thus, "John Smith, Esq." or "Mr. John Smith" would be correct, but "Mr. John Smith, Esq." would be incorrect.
When addressing a person who has an academic degree or other post-nominal professional designation, such as a Certified Public Accountant, a writer may use the post-nominal designation after the "Esq." For example, an attorney who is also an accountant could be addressed as "James A. Smith, Esq., CPA." Likewise, an attorney who is a Doctor of Medicine could be styled as "Dr. Jane Kelly," or "Jane Kelly, Esq., M.D.," or, if a holder of both degrees — some states do not require attorneys to hold a J.D. degree in order to practice law — "Jane Kelly, M.D., J.D.," when referred to in the third person, but never "Dr. Jane Kelly, Esq.
Some fraternal groups use the title of "Esquire." The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks uses the title of "Esquire" for an appointed office position. One appendant body in Freemasonry also uses "Esquire" as a degree title.