Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Fair to Middling

Doug from Traverse City asked about the phrase fair to middling. It is now used mostly in response to the question “How are you doing?” The colloquial reply is, “fair to middling.” It seems to have originated in America in the mid 19th century, and it means O.K.—not spectacular and not disastrous.

Originally, it appears to have been used as part of a rating scale. The rating system ran, more or less, from fine to good to fair to middling to poor. It was used to rate the grade of cotton. Fair to middling would place the crop as average to low-average in quality, and the price would be set accordingly.

The phrase was used for other commodities, too, such as corn meal, flour, livestock, fruit, clothing, and even meals. The noun middling goes all the way back to Old English, where it signified an intermediate stage. The adjective middling appeared in the mid 15th century, where it meant moderate in size, strength, or quality.

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