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May 25, 2011 4:44 PM   Subscribe

Why is fair considered to be lesser than good, very good or excellent?

Fair is a funny word.

As an adjective, fair indicates that something is free from bias, dishonesty or injustice -- which would seem to be an excellent state for something to be in. Fair weather implies clear skies. Fair can also be synonymous with ample, favorable, or free of barriers (fair game), all of which seem to be enormously positive.

But there it is, nestled as an adjective between poor and good in any given survey, and commonly taken to mean "only just acceptable". If something is fair in that context, it's not quite good, or worse than average. This would seem to directly contrast with the other uses of fair.

Online dictionaries and etymology sites don't seem to explain the apparent contradiction of the use of fair as an adjective. How did these two uses come about?
posted by eschatfische to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would argue that "fair" in the context of like the rules or "fair game" is not a positive thing but a neutral thing -- if something is fair, it's giving no advantage nor disadvantage to anyone. "Fair game" to me does not imply ample or favorable at all, but rather that nobody has an advantage or a disadvantage in getting it. "Fair weather" means it's in the middle -- not too hot, not too cold. For me -- all of those go pretty directly to "Fair" as a grade being somewhere in the middle -- not good, not bad, just fair.
posted by brainmouse at 4:48 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

It doesn't mean "only just acceptable" it means "acceptable" or average. Good is "above average" and poor is "below average". I find that definition to gibe quite well with "free from bias, dishonesty or injustice" and your weather example.

Think of it this way. A fair court is neither overly merciful or overly authoritarian (better word is escaping me... lacking in mercy or unjust). It is balanced.

A fair day is neither overly hot, cold, wet, rainy, blustery, etc.

So a "fair performance" on a test is again, perfectly balanced between good and bad, a way of saying average.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:51 PM on May 25, 2011

your own definition kind of answers it: "free from bias"
which means it is not biased either towards being good or being bad.
posted by juv3nal at 5:00 PM on May 25, 2011

Agreed with the three above me, but what about the (now old-fashioned) use of "fair" to mean "beautiful"?
posted by lewedswiver at 5:24 PM on May 25, 2011

The issue is that fair doesn't mean "average" or "without bias" in the context of a survey.

In a survey with the five common answers -- poor, fair, good, very good, excellent -- the average value is good, not fair. Fair is represented, literally and figuratively, as being below average.

Similarly, Webster's own definition of fair lists the word as meaning both ample and sufficient but not ample. Based on this discrepancy in quantity, fair would not seem to be used in a way that meant that it is neutral, as it's also alternately used to indicate more or less. Clearly, surveys use the word fair to mean "sufficient but not ample", but that doesn't indicate why the word would also be synonymous with the opposite -- something being ample -- as well as being neutral.
posted by eschatfische at 5:25 PM on May 25, 2011

According to Barnhart, the word's roots all indicate beauty of appearance. By 1200 AD "fair" could mean "beautiful," or "of a light complexion," or "free from moral stain." The latter meaning evolved into the sense "free from bias" by 1340, and the phrase "fair play" is first found in 1575.

Barnhart doesn't suggest exactly how this branch of meaning developed, but it seems to have happened about 800 years ago.
posted by jon1270 at 5:30 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this has less to do with the word "fair" than with survey design, which seems to have shifted the middle from "fair" to "good" as a kind of grade inflation. I've been involved in the development of a few customer satisfaction surveys in the past and these kinds of things are most definitely taken into consideration.
posted by telegraph at 7:06 PM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

The problem is that the word fair can mean about four different things. It can mean attractive "the fairer sex," it can mean light-skinned "he was red-haired and fair-skinned," it can mean not showing prejudice "the judge was tough but fair" and it can mean somewhat less than good "how are you?" "eh, fair to middling." It is a funny word, but that's the cobbled together language we have to work with.
posted by Gilbert at 7:51 PM on May 25, 2011

In a big picture sense fair is indeed ideal. In normal usage, excellent means "unfair in my favor."
posted by cmoj at 8:50 PM on May 25, 2011

I came in to say something similar to telegraph except with the information that:

1) Americans give notoriously high scores to things and this bias makes you unable to compare them directly to other country's respondents without some adjustment -- this is likely to counteract this

2) You won't find this language on a global survey for precisely the same reason
posted by Gucky at 10:32 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

> Americans give notoriously high scores to things and this bias makes you unable to compare them directly to other country's respondents without some adjustment

For fuck's sake. If you're implying that this use of "fair" is some kind of American aberration, you're completely wrong. The OED's first-edition entry on the word, first published in 1894 at a time when the OED was even more UK-centric than it is now, has the definition "Expressing moderate commendation: Free from grave objection; of tolerable though not highly excellent quality; 'pretty good'."

The answer to the initial question ("Why is fair considered to be lesser than good, very good or excellent?") is "because it is." That's not snark, it's just how language works. You can't point to some other use of a word and say it makes the use you're curious about inconsistent; language isn't consistent any more than the people who use it are. It is extremely common for words to slide down the semantic scale as time goes on (compare the current use of "awesome," which in another few decades could well slip down to 'pretty good'), and that's what's happened here.
posted by languagehat at 7:35 AM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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