While researching the first use of the word “saloon” to mean “place where alcoholic refreshment is sold”, I was surprised to discover that while saloon’s Proto-Indo-European ancestor had a descendant in Old English, which was used in a compound word that was the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the modern saloon, the Old English word died out, and “saloon” actually came into modern English on a long journey via Germanic, Italian and French.
Apologies that I am telling quite a few of you things you already know, but the tale started with PIE *sel-, which meant something like “human settlement”: the Russian for “village” is still село, and the Lithuanian is sala. In Proto-Germanic the meaning seems to have shifted to “hall”: Saal is still a German word meaning “hall”. Old English had sele, “hall”, and beór-sele in Old English, was “beer hall” – or “beer saloon”, perhaps. The word appears several times in Beowulf, including the line
Gebeotedon beore druncne oret-mecgas, ðæt hie in beor-sele bidan woldon Grendles guðe
that is, “The sons of conflict, drunk on beer, promised they would wait in the beer-hall for Grendel’s attack.”
Not certain we can really reimagine King Hroðgar as the landlord of the Hart and Beowulf as his bouncer ...
However, while the word sele staggered on as “sale”, meaning “hall”, into Tudor English, it seems to have died out early in the 16th century. Meanwhile Italian had picked up the Germanic word for “hall”, probably something like *saloz-, and turned it into sala, “hall”, and then salone, “large hall”. The French then took salone and made it salon, “reception room”, and from there “salon” entered English as a word meaning originally “A large and lofty apartment serving as one of the principal reception rooms in a palace or other great house”, and then more specifically “A room, more or less elegantly furnished, used for the reception of guests; a drawing-room”. By the 1720s “salon” was also being spelt “saloon” in English, and by the 1740s “saloon” was being used to mean “A large apartment or hall, especially in a hotel or other place of public resort, adapted for assemblies, entertainments and exhibitions”.
Since drink would naturally be served in these saloons before, during or after the entertainments, it was equally natural that “saloon” drifted semantically to take in the meaning “a place where intoxicating liquors are sold and consumed; a drinking bar”. “Saloon”, in an American context to mean place serving alcohol, looks to date from at least the early 1840s.
Those of you familiar with British pubs will know that many pubs have at least a couple of separate bars, frequently still labelled on the doors “public bar”, originally for the more down-market, working-class customers, and “saloon bar”, which would originally have been rather more upmarket. “Saloon bar” is, in a British context and its British sense of the upmarket side of the pub, quite late: the Oxford English Dictionary only found its first mention in 1902. Google Books lets us do rather better, but considering how ubiquitous this two-bar class-based division was in British pubs in the 20th century, I was surprised to find the earliest reference to “saloon bar” was only from the 1880s, in an anonymously written book called Tempted London: Young Men, published in 1888:
The most harmful class of taverns are those which are made the usual resort of women of bad character … One tavern at Islington is one of the most notorious of this class. Here there is a large saloon bar which, after 8 o’clock at night, is almost monopolized by the class of persons just mentioned. They are allowed to remain there as long as ever they like, and no man is safe from their impertinences, if he once ventures into the saloon.
So: beór-sele, saloon bar, same concept (given the thousand-year difference between them), same word at their heart, but two different routes into the language.