Pub vs. Bar: The Eternal Quandary

A PintIt’s Friday afternoon, a time of drinking and merriment throughout the world. As such, today’s post will focus on two words related to imbibing: pub and bar. Although similar in meaning, these terms seem to have different meanings depending on dialect.

Let me state this for the record: Americans do, in fact, use the word “pub.” Set foot in most small American towns, and you’ll read signs for Brian’s Pub, TJ’s Pub, Slider’s Pub and Restaurant, or similar variations. This is not a word foreign to American soil.

Given, bar is more common here when referring to establishments of this type. Yet “pub” seems to have its own niche in American English that I can’t put my finger on. What exactly is a “pub” to an American?

One possible answer is indicated above: it’s more the provenance of business titles than everday speech. You could argue that “pub” in America is similar to the word mart: you might see signs for the Food Mart or Value Mart, but you’re unlikely to say, “I’m going down to the mart to pick up some eggs.”

And yet I’ve used “pub” in everyday discourse.  I doubt I’m the only American to do so. But there are some restrictions on this usage. For example, if I were to ask a friend …

“Do you want to go to a pub tonight?”

…my friend will certainly understand what I mean. But the question will sound strange and affected coming from my American lips. On the other hand, I could also ask…

“Do you want to go to that nice little pub down the street?”

…and this feels more natural. In my idiolect, then, I use “pub” to refer to a specific establishment, rather than a general type of establishment. There are qualitative shades of meaning to this word for me as well: a “pub” is somewhere homey, quieter, relaxed; a “bar” the kind of raucous place you tried to sneak into as a teenager.

In this thread about this topic in wordreference.com’s language forum, you’ll see that many people make the same association. Pub = homey, darts, food; bar = loud, no food, seedy.

Is it possible then, that the different frequencies of “pub” and “bar” on each side of the Atlantic are a matter of what kind of businesses are typical of each? You can find amazing pubs in any U.S. city, but they are probably outnumbered by dark, loud, alchohol-centric places. Likewise, Britain and Ireland have their share of sleazy “bars.” But for both countries, the kind of place where a working-man can enjoy a quiet pint in the afternoon still dominates.

Regardless of whether you go to pubs or bars (or just stay home), happy friday.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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13 Responses to Pub vs. Bar: The Eternal Quandary

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    I live in Oregon, and I tend to associate bars with places that serve spirits (in addition to beer, etc.), whereas a pub focuses on beer (but may also have spirits).

    I’m used to certain adjectives that modify the terms “bar” and “pub”, and so some usages would sound strange.

    For example a biker bar, but not a biker pub; or a t*tty bar, but not a t*tty pub; or a sports bar, but not a sports pub; even a gay bar, but not a gay pub.

    Similarly, the only general terms that feels right modifying pub refer to countries: Irish pub, British pub, etc.

    • trawicks says:

      The 13-year-old-boy in me couldn’t help but find the notion of a strip club calling itself a “pub” hysterically funny. But it actually highlights the way that “pub” is used to confer a kind of faux-legitimacy to bars in the States. I’ve sometimes noticed, in fact, that the more disgusting a bar is, the more likely its proprietors have added “pub” to the title.

    • Ellen K. says:

      I can’t help thinking, even though we would always say sports bar, not sports pub, a sports bar definitely fits in with pubs… serves food, not glitzy nor sleasy.

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    Tavern and Saloon? Now I don’t know I’m headed.

  3. Bob Hale says:

    In my dialect (UK, West Midlands) the distinction is quite clear and sharp. If it’s a building whose sole purpose is the sale of alcohol to be drunk on the premises it’s a pub. If it’s a room in a building with the same purpose (for example in a Hotel, a Railway Station, an Airport or even a room in a Pub) then it’s a bar.

    An establishment selling alcohol to be consumed away from the premises is an off-license.

  4. AL says:

    To me, a bar can have all sorts of different interior designs, be it modern or otherwise. I also associate bars with music – sometimes they have a dance area – and sometimes have no food or only appetizer-type “bar” food.

    When I hear pub, I think of establishments that are designed with a British, Irish, or colonial American motif. They may be quieter, or serve an older clientele, and may serve more proper meals. (I grew up in California and Maryland.)

  5. trawicks says:

    @Bob,

    That distinction makes a lot of sense. It suggests that “bar” literally applies to the physical object of a bar rather than a type of business.

    @AL,

    As you mention here, the other way “pub” might be used in the states is to suggest a restaurant’s Englishness or Irishness. In particular, almost any Irish-themed bar in the States has “pub” in the title.

  6. MarcL says:

    Trawicks:
    The first pubs in England (short for public houses) were licensed to sell beer, wine and spirits. The first bars were so-named because of the “bars” in front of the counters where the drinks were dispensed, or so the etymology website states.
    That said, I agree with what the other commenters; a bar can be something as simple as a place to get a drink in a hotel lobby, or a joint where people go for a night’s entertainment. But in the US, various chains have called their establishments pubs. There are also single-owner establishments. From personal experience, the local pub in the US is usually a neighborhood place where people get to know each other after work and before going home; what one sociologist called in the title of his book, “The Best Third Place.” Don’t recall the author’s name right now.

  7. zpc says:

    “Do you want to go to a pub tonight?” sounds a bit odd in most English dialects of English as well, interestingly enough – you usually hear, “do you want to go to THE pub tonight?” instead. Even when WHICH pub is not yet clear. For example, text message exchange between myself and my partner, after work last night. Me: “Going to the pub.” Partner: “Want to come to the pub after? [friend] is celebrating.”

    • trawicks says:

      That’s an interesting distinction that I never thought about. We may similarly use the definite article in the states–I believe I’ve heard “do you wanna go to the bar tonight?” Although more commonly, it would be something along the lines of “you wanna go out drinking?”

      Love that text message!

  8. James says:

    Google Correlate shows some variation with ‘pub’ and ‘bar’ across the states:

    http://correlate.googlelabs.com/search?e=pub&t=all#

    http://correlate.googlelabs.com/search?e=bar&t=all#

    I haven’t seen GC used for regional US variation on any language blogs yet, but it’ll probably prove useful. For instance, compare ‘sofa’, ‘couch’, ‘divan’, and ‘davenport’. As clear as day.

  9. Ed says:

    In Britain, the word “bar” gets used if a drinking establishment is very smart and spacious, and if the prices are high.