A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (80)?…


Fair to middling

How are you after Christmas? You might respond by saying you are fair to middling, a phrase, along with some of its  variants which we will explore later on, suggesting that on the spectrum between excellent and poor you are slightly better than average.

The term fair has been used since the 18th century to describe agricultural produce. John Mortimer in 1707 in his farming handbook entitled The Whole Art of Husbandry, exhorts the farmer “as you gather your fruit, separate the fairest and biggest from the middling”. The implication is that by that time what was described as fair was bigger or superior to what was classified as middling.

Middling’s provenance seems to have been Scottish and has been in use since at least the 15th century with the sense of being of medium or moderate quality, strength or size. The first recorded instance of its usage is in the Marquis of Bute’s Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, published in 1450.

Although these are the component parts our phrase seems to be American. Farmers have always been keen to grade their produce and developed a series of phrases to denote the relative quality of their produce. So taking the already well established quality descriptors, fair and middling, they established a category which is slap bang in the middle of the two, fair to middling. The earliest use of the phrase dates back to 1829 when John Stuart Skinner in a market report on the sale of castrated rams for the journal The American Farmer, reported, “two or three lots of good wethers brought from $2.50 to $3 per head, and a few lots of fair to middling $1.50 to $2”.

But the farming community didn’t stop there in their search for terms to describe their produce. Good fair, for example, was used to describe foodstuff or stock which was somewhere between good and fair as can be seen in this entry in Beeton’s Dictionary of Commerce of 1873 in describing cotton, “good fair to good saw-ginned Surat cotton”.

Of the variants of the phrase fair to middlin’  is just a lazy colloquialism. Fair to Midlands, though, needs some further examination. In purely geographical terms the Midlands is used to describe the area that is in the middle of the terrain and so equates to middling. It is possible that someone somewhere saw it as an amusing variant to middling and it stuck. There is an American rock band called Fair to Milands and in 1935 the New York Times described Doctor William Twedell as “what might be called a fair-to-Midlands golfer”.

Conversely, you may be feeling below par, a term meaning substandard, inferior or below the norm. These days the terms par has been appropriated by the Doctor Twedells of this world and those whom Mark Twain gloriously described as spoiling a long walk, the golfers. But par has been in use since the late 16th century with a meaning of equality of value or standing. It wasn’t appropriated by the golfing fraternity until the late 19th century where it is used to refer to the standard score assigned to a hole or the course as a whole which golfers are trying to better. What is interesting is that it is a golfer’s ambition to shoot a score below par whereas outside the golfing context being  below par is something to be avoided.

Happy New Year!


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