Last updated
Wooden gavel
ClassificationCeremonial mallet
Used withSound block

A gavel is a small ceremonial mallet commonly made of hardwood, typically fashioned with a handle. It can be used to call for attention or to punctuate rulings and proclamations and is a symbol of the authority and right to act officially in the capacity of a presiding officer. [1] It is often struck against a sound block, a striking surface typically also made of hardwood, to enhance its sounding qualities. According to tradition, Vice President John Adams used a gavel as a call to order in the first U.S. Senate in New York in the spring of 1789. Since then, it has remained customary to tap the gavel against a lectern or desk to indicate the opening and closing of proceedings, and it is also used to keep the meeting itself calm and orderly.



In Medieval England, the word gavel could refer to a tribute or rent payment made with something other than cash. [2] These agreements were set in English land-court with the sound of a gavel, a word which may come from the Old English : gafol (meaning "tribute"). [2] Gavel would be prefixed to any non-monetary payment given to a lord (for example: gavel-malt) and can be found as a prefix to other terms such as gavelkind , a system of partible inheritance formerly found in parts of the UK and Ireland. A gavel may also have referred to a kind of mason's tool, a setting maul that came into use as a way to maintain order in meetings. [2]

Use in meetings

A gavel may be used in meetings of a deliberative assembly. According to Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised , the gavel may be used to signify a recess or an adjournment. [3] [4] It may also be used to signify when a member makes a slight breach of the rules. [5]

Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure states that, in addition to an optional light tap after a vote, there are three other uses of a gavel: [1]

Improper uses include banging the gavel in an attempt to drown out a disorderly member. [5] In this situation, the chair should give one vigorous tap at a time at intervals. [1] Also, the chair should not lean on the gavel, juggle or toy with it, or use it to challenge or threaten or to emphasize remarks. [1]

The chair should not be "gaveling through" a measure by cutting off members and quickly putting a question to a vote before any member can get the floor (in this connection, the chair should not use the gavel to improperly signify the end of consideration of a question). [6] The expression passing the gavel signifies an orderly succession from one chair to another.

In addition to the use above during business meetings, organizations may use the gavel during their ceremonies and may specify the number of raps of the gavel corresponding to different actions. [7] [8]

The gavel is used in courts of law in the United States and, by metonymy, is used there to represent the entire judiciary system, especially of judgeship. On the other hand, in the Commonwealth of Nations and Republic of Ireland, gavels have never been used by judges, despite many American-influenced TV programmes depicting them. [9] [10] [11] An exception is the Inner London Crown Court, where clerks use a gavel to alert parties in court of the entrance of the judge into the courtroom. [12] [13]

United States Congress gavels

United States Senate gavels US Senate gavels.jpg
United States Senate gavels

The unique gavel of the United States Senate has an hourglass shape and no handle. In 1954, the gavel that had been in use since at least 1834 (and possibly since 1789) broke when Vice President Richard Nixon used it during a heated debate on nuclear energy, despite silver plates that were added to strengthen it in 1952. [14] The Senate was unable to obtain a piece of ivory large enough to replace the gavel, so they appealed to the Indian embassy. Later that year, India's Vice President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan visited the Senate and presented a replica of the original gavel to Nixon. [15] The replica is still in use as of 2018. [16]

The gavel of the House of Representatives, by contrast, is plain wood with a handle and is used more often and more forcefully than in the Senate. It has been broken and replaced many times. [17]

United Nations

In 1955 Icelandic sculptor Ríkarður Jónsson carved the Icelandic birch gavel and striking board used at the United Nations. [18]


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    1. 1 2 3 4 Demeter, George (1969). Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, Blue Book, p. 39–40
    2. 1 2 3 See dictionary definitions of "gavel" at Merriam-Webster, Oxford Dictionaries, and
    3. Robert, Henry M.; et al. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. p. 232. ISBN   978-0-306-82020-5.
    4. Robert 2011 , p. 242
    5. 1 2 Robert 2011 , p. 645
    6. Robert 2011 , p. 387
    7. "The Gavel". B.P.O.E. Retrieved 2015-08-03.
    8. "Illustrations of Masonry: Illustrations of Masonry: Opening the Lodge". Retrieved 2016-02-11.
    9. Burggraf, Helen. "Gavel-spotting is new sport for expat Americans in UK, Commonwealth courts".
    10. Marcel Berlins (23 November 2009). "Knock it on the head, BBC. Judges don't use gavels". The Guardian . Retrieved 2014-06-09.
    11. "Traditions of the courts".
    12. "There is an English court where gavels are actually used". December 16, 2014.
    13. "Mea Culpa: Order in court – no gavels". The Independent. November 11, 2016.
    14. "Historical Minute Essays: 1941-1963: November 17, 1954: The Senate's New Gavel". Retrieved 2012-05-06.
    15. "India's gift to Nixon". The Hindu. The Hindu. 1954-11-19. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
    16. "Senate Gavel". Retrieved 3 June 2018.
    17. Larchuk, Travis. "Passing One Of Many, Many Gavels". Retrieved 2016-02-10.
    18. Baal-Teshuva, Jacob, Art Treasures of the United Nations, Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1964 p.71 and Plate 34

    Commons-logo.svg Media related to gavels at Wikimedia Commons