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Friday, August 15, 2014

Earth has not anything to show more fair

August brings us many opportunities to go visit some country fairs (and in the US bigger state fairs, what we call in Canada an "exhibition" or more commonly, "the ex", like the Canadian National Exhibition which opens today in Toronto). I don't think Wordsworth in the line quoted above was thinking about tucking into funnel cakes and candyfloss or opportunities to play Whack-a-Mole; is there in fact any connection between the noun "fair" and the adjective "fair"?

This is another case in English where we have one word from Anglo-Saxon and another unrelated one from French that just happen to end up being spelled the same way. The gathering for buying and selling goods goes by an Anglo-Norman name (as did so many commercial things after the Norman Conquest), feyre (modern French foire), derived from the Latin word for "holiday", feria (a word which is still used in ecclesiastical English to designate an ordinary day as distinct from a feast day).

The adjective "fair" is much older in English, going back to an Anglo-Saxon word fagar  (beautiful). The "g" sound between vowels almost always disappeared, so that by the Middle English period this word was also being spelled "fair". Because beauty is generally considered A Good Thing, the word took on many other meanings:
  • 1. just, unbiased, equitable; in accordance with the rules.
  • 2. blond; light or pale in colour or complexion.
  • 3. of (only) moderate quality or amount; average.
    • considerable, satisfactory: a fair chance of success.
  • 4. (of weather) fine and dry.
    • (of the wind) favourable.
    • (of the sky) clear; cloudless.
  • 5. clean, clear, unblemished: fair copy.
  • 6. (Baseball) (of a batted ball) that lands or is caught within the legal area of play.

Here's my choir (I am not in this video) singing William Harris's fabulous "Faire is the Heaven" (set to words by Edmund Spenser, who was not thinking about baseball).

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1 comment:

  1. hah - I recognize my friend Jimmy in this video!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.