The gavel is an icon of success and authority for judges, lawyers, educators and many others.
When a judge bangs the gavel, that’s it. The final word on a case is spoken and court is adjourned. It is the gavel that is the ultimate symbol of authority in the complex hierarchy of a courtroom.
Reaching beyond legalese, the gavel holds the same sense of respect for those in law enforcement, civil service, education, real estate and auctioneering. Whether used during formal proceedings or displayed for ceremonial reasons, the gavel commands attention and denotes authority, for all who witness its use.
When you stop to think about it, the idea of the gavel is spun into the DNA of the English language through many common sayings:
● Passing the gavel = transferring power to someone new
● Pounding the gavel = getting everyone’s attention
● Banging the gavel = ruling in someone’s favor
● Lifting the gavel = re-opening a discussion about something
● Putting the gavel down/Laying down the gavel = ending an argument without judgment
● Golden gavel = the highest honor someone can receive
The U.S. government has used gavels since its founding, following a gavel tradition from the British empire in the 1600s. Early U.S. Senate gavels are made of wood or ivory. The Ivory Gavel, used by the first U.S. Vice President John Adams, sat on a desk in the Senate for decades until it broke into shards and had to be reconstructed.
Although some people believe gavels are modeled after the mythical Hammer of Thor, historians disagree. Early legal gavels are small cylinders without gavel heads, while Noah’s biblical gavel, described as more of a flathead hammer, give them pause.
The modern gavel shape is believed to represent an object that can both physically hammer things – like grains and metal – and symbolically “hammer things out” through peaceful discussion. The heaviness of the gavel-head shows the weight of the issue; the silence after the pounding ends confirms the end of the discussion. In this way, the gavel represents both power and civility. Someone with a gavel is expected to wield their power carefully, under the watchful eye of the public.
Author and social commentator Fran Lebowitz has been awarded several gavels over the years as symbols of respect for her work. She appreciates the depth of their meaning, but also has a sense of humor about them. She says, “If people had gavels, there would be no wars. If every person in the world had a gavel and could bang it and get everyone’s attention right away and make their displeasure known, I believe the level of actual violence in the world would just disappear to practically nothing. I so often have presided over charity auctions in New York that many years ago Sotheby’s sent me my own gavel … It hangs in my library. I feel that everyone has occasion to use a gavel at various times every day, they just don’t think of it.”
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