Fair to Middling

When I was growing up, in response to the phrase ‘How are you doing?’ my dad would always answer “oh…. fair to middlin'”. I would always think, ‘why does he say that? what does that even mean?” In fact, I always thought it was one made-up word…. “faredamiddlion.” I thought my dad was the only one to say it, turns out, the trend just never really picked up in Nevada…. Now, thanks to Michael Quinion, I know the truth about the phrase.

From Michael Quinion: I do like “fair to Midland”. It sounds like a weather forecast: “fair to Midland, but the North will have rain”. That’s a Texas variation on the phrase, a joke on the name of the city called Midland in that state. It’s really fair to middling, of course, a common enough phrase — in Britain as well as North America — for something that is moderate to average in quality, sometimes written the way people often say it, as fair to middlin’.

All the early examples I can find in literary works — from authors like Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and Artemus Ward — suggest it became common on the east coast of the US from the 1860s on. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Artemus Ward: His Travels of 1865: “The men are fair to middling”. Another is from Horace Greeley’s Recollections of a Busy Life of 1869 in which he records seeing a play: “The night was intensely cold, in-doors as well as out; the house was thin; the playing from fair to middling; yet I was in raptures from first to last”.

Hunting around, I’ve found an example three decades earlier, from an article with the title A Succinct Account of the Sandwich Islands, in the July 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia: “A Dinner on the Plains, Tuesday, September 20th. — This was given ‘at the country seat’ of J. C. Jones, Esq. to the officers of the Peacock and Enterprise. The viands were ‘from fair to middling, we wish we could say more.’ “

So the phrase is American, most probably early nineteenth century. But where does it come from? There’s a clue in one of the OED’s later citations, from the Century Dictionary of 1889: “Fair to middling, moderately good: a term designating a specific grade of quality in the market”. The term middling turns out to have been used as far back as the previous century for an intermediate grade of various kinds of goods, both in the US and in Britain — there are references to a middling grade of flour or meal, pins, cotton, and other commodities.

Which market the Century Dictionary was referring to is made plain by the nineteenth-century American trade journals that I’ve consulted. Fair and middling were terms in the cotton business for specific grades — the sequence ran from the best quality (fine), through good, fair, middling and ordinary to the least good (inferior), with a number of intermediates, one being middling fair. The phrase fair to middling sometimes appeared as a reference to this grade, or to a range of intermediate qualities — it was common to quote indicative prices, for example, for “fair to middling grade”. The reference was so well known in the cotton trade that it seems to have eventually escaped into the wider language.

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