Posted by: Jack Henry | November 19, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Fair to Middlin’

Dear Editrix,

As a teenager in the ‘90s, when I asked older people, “How are you?” a frequent response was “fair to middling.” The other day I used the phrase myself and thought, “Shoot, I just got old!” Do you know how this phrase came to mean “OK”? And why only old people use it?


Young at Heart

Dear Young at Heart,

What an interesting question. I thought I found a short, sweet response from the Grammarist, but then I found another article that expanded on the phrase, and I couldn’t choose between the two. Here is the shorter response, from the Grammarist, which tells you how old it is (but not why older folks like to use the phrase), what it means, a bit of its history, and how it is sometimes misheard:

Fair to middling describes something that is average or only slightly above average. The term is an American phrase, used as early as the 1820s. The term fair to middling originally referred to gradations of quality in cotton, sheep, and other farm goods. Such goods may be designated into categories such as fine, good, fair, middling and poor. By the 1860s the phrase fair to middling evolved into common speech to mean something average or slightly above average.

Fair to midland is a mondegreen, which is a misheard version of a phrase, saying, lyric, poetic phrase, or slogan. Some speculate that the phrase began as a joke concerning the English Midlands or Midland, Texas. It is most likely simply a mishearing of the word middling, especially when pronounced as “middlin’.”

This second article expands on the information from the Grammarist and gives it a bit of a Texas twist. In honor of all the Texans that work at JHA, I wanted to provide the opportunity to read this story from Texas Monthly. Despite my trimming, it is a bit lengthy, but it is an interesting read if you have a couple of extra minutes. Enjoy!

Decades ago, when my dad and I were Texans exiled in Nashville, I would often see him tell people he was “fair to middlin’” after people would inquire about his general well-being. When asked what he meant, he’d explain, “Oh, it’s an old Texan expression to describe cotton. It means ‘doing pretty well.’”

Maybe it wasn’t my imagination. Back before the sale of steers and oil took over the Texas economy, Texas was the jewel in the crown of the cotton states, and much of our vernacular stemmed from the cotton patch….

While the saying originates in a British phrase, “fair to middlin’” unequivocally is a cotton patch term that took root in Texas. Thanks to progressive metal bands from northeast Texas and a Dwight Yoakam single, Texans tricked the Brits into accepting our own bastardized remaking—“fair to Midland”—as their own.

“Fair,” in this sense, means top-of-the-line, in the old British sense of “a maiden so fair” or Shakespeare’s “Happy the parents of so fair a child!” But as applied to cotton, the term is of relatively recent (at least post-Revolutionary War) vintage. Most of the cotton harvested and exported in the Southern states in the nineteenth century was trundled down to the coast and loaded up in ports like Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, and Savannah and sent to Liverpool, where it was distributed to “dark Satanic mills” across Lancashire, in northwestern England.

In Liverpool around 1800, the cotton brokers came up with the Liverpool Classification, a grading system for the raw material’s quality. The system was quoted in American newspapers up until the Civil War, acting as a nineteenth-century NASDAQ for Southern cotton farmers.

In 1828, per a Natchez, Mississippi newspaper, the Liverpool Classification ranged in quality from “ordinary and middling” to “middling to fair” to “fair to good fair” to “good and fine.” That highest grade denoted a supreme product that evidently was so rare, I could find no record of sale for such finely-wrought white gold in the accounts of several trading sessions.

While most of those adjectives stuck around in the vernacular, the Liverpool Classification was never widely embraced and had fallen out of favor by the time of the Civil War.

And at some point — it’s hard to pinpoint when — people on both sides of the pond started switching “middling fair” to “fair to middling” (in the U.K.) and “fair to middlin’” in the South and Texas. It also vaulted out of the cottonfields and came to be used to describe many things — you could be feeling “fair to middlin” about life in general, or you could look out the window and see that the weather was much the same.

Somewhere along the way, the phrase lost its connotation for top-grade quality. Today, some see it akin to the more commonly American “can’t complain,” or perhaps the French “comme ci, comme ça.” For younger folks, perhaps it’s been replaced by “meh.”

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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