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The meaning and origin of the expression: Fair to middling

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Fair to middling/Fair to Midland

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Fair to middling'?

Slightly above average.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Fair to middling/Midland' - the short version

  • In the USA fair to middlin' and 'fair to Midland' derived separately and later merged to have the same meaning and be effectively the same phrase.
  • In the UK 'fair to midland' derived as either an accidental or deliberate mispronunciation of 'fair to middling' and 'fair to midland' is seen as a mistake.

I should add that both of the above statements need to be preceded by the caveat 'probably' as the origin of this couplet of phrases is somewhat obscure.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Fair to middling/Midland' - the full story

'Fair to middling' comes to the party with two friends, fair to middlin' and fair to midland. Both of these gatecrashers derive from the original phrase, but in different ways. Fair to middlin' is just a colloquial version written in the way that the expression is often spoken, in America at least.

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'It's middling' - not 'midland'.
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Fair to midland is an odder fish and may be a mispronunciation of 'middling' as 'midland', or it may be an unconnected expression.

What makes this more complicated is that, in the USA, the two phrases are both correct and probably originated separately whereas, in the UK, one is a mispronunciation of the other.

As to the UK 'fair to midland' mispronunciation; why would anyone do that? It could be just a simple mistake, although that seems unlikely as 'fair to midland' doesn't really mean anything. A more likely explanation would be that it was the result of a deliberate jokey mispronunciation, along the lines of san fairy Ann, taking the Miguel etc. This could have originated in the English Midlands. It is widely used there and the English are inveterate 'accidentally on purpose' mispronouncers - Cockney Rhyming Slang is an entire dialect built along those lines.

As to the US version of 'fair to Midland', it seems likely that 'fair to midland' was derived separately from 'fair to middling' in the southern states, specifically Texas, the reference possibly being to that state's city of Midland. There are other theories as to the meaning of 'midland' but, as most of the early examples of 'fair to Midland' in print use the capital 'M', it seems likely that the place name theory is correct. The earliest printed citation of 'fair to midland' that I can find comes from The New York Times, May 1935:

Dr. William Tweddell, who is what might be called a fair-to-Midland golfer...

Fair to MidlandThe current usage of the expression is predominantly American and has been boosted by the popularity of the US hard rock band that has adopted it as its name.

So, if you are in America, then you might hear 'fair to midland' and 'fair to middling' used and the two expressions are equally acceptable.

If you are in the UK then 'fair to middling' is the proper form of the expression and 'fair to midland' is a mispronunciation, either deliberate or as heard and copied from the USA.

As to the derivation of 'fair to middling' we of course need to know what 'middling' referred to. The word was and is a term used by farmers to describe the quality of farm produce, especially sheep, of ordinary quality. There were several loosely defined grades of produce: 'good', 'fair, 'middling', 'ordinary' and 'poor'.

'Middling' is an old Scots word and has been in use since at least the 15th century with the same meaning as now, that is, 'of medium or moderate size, strength, quality'. Around 1450, the Marquis of Bute wrote the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, which includes what appears to be the earliest example of 'middling' in print:

'The ynch sulde be with the thoum off midling mane nother our mikil nor our litil bot be tuyx the twa'.

I interpret that Old Scots text as meaning 'The inch should be measured with the thumb near the middle, neither at the largest point nor the smallest but between the two' but, if there are any old Scots out there who know better, I would be happy to be enlightened.

'Fair' was used in the UK from the 18th century onward to describe farm produce. An example of that usage is found in John Mortimer's farming handbook The Whole Art of Husbandry, 1707:

As you gather your Fruit, separate the fairest and biggest from the middling.

Like sailors who, when they needed finer designations of direction than North, East, South and West, came up with South-west, North-east etc., farmers needed a name for 'not quite fair but better than average' and they opted for 'fair to middling'. The earliest use of the expression 'fair to middling' that I can find is in the Britannia Press, October 1822:

Minas, 16 bags, fair to middling, 8¼d.; Tenesees, 197 bales, very ordinary 5½d.

Farmers didn't stop there and came up with other intermediate grades, like 'good fair'. Needing finer and finer classifications of quality, they again followed the sailors' lead and copied their 'North-north-east' style. In 1873, Beeton's Dictionary of Commerce described a delivery of cotton as:

Good fair to good saw-ginned Surat cotton.

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