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shameless pleading

Fair / Fare

This way to the Egress.

Dear Word Detective:  While watching the weather forecast, my wife and I saw a tagline that said “Heavy rains lower fair prices.” As we had the TV muted, we couldn’t be sure what the statement meant.  Then we began wondering if the various fairs (pleasing, unbiased, and a country gathering) and fares (fee for travel and subject of dinner) were related. Can you shed some light on this? — Ray.

That’s a good question.  Now you’ve got me wondering what they meant.  I guess the local cow-fest gotten so soggy that candy apples were going two for a dime.  Speaking of county fairs, someone at the Associated Press was clearly having fun last week when they penned the  Hollywood-esque headline “Insane Killer Escapes on Field Trip to County Fair.”  They loved it so much, in fact, that they used the phrase “insane killer” in follow up stories for several days until someone in management apparently ordered them to stop.  Maybe they were angling for a job at the New York Post, purveyor of such legendary headlines as “Headless Corpse in Topless Bar.”

The short answer to your rather complex question is that two of the three “fairs” you mention are related to each other, but one is not, and both kinds of “fare” are actually the same word.  In no case, however, is there any connection between “fair” and “fare.”  Clear as mud, right?

The “county fair” kind of “fair,” meaning “a periodic public gathering,” usually with a unifying theme or rationale, is the simplest of the bunch to explain.  In English, the noun “fair” in this sense dates back to the 14th century and came to us via Old French from the Latin “feria,” meaning “holiday.”  That “feria” was a close relative of the Latin “festus,” meaning “joyful,” which gave us the modern English words “festival” and “feast.”

The adjective “fair” (“fair price,” “fair weather,” etc.) is a different word entirely.  Derived from ancient Germanic roots, it appeared in Old English with the general meaning of “pleasing or beautiful.”  It’s this original meaning we find in such phrases as “fair weather.”

“Fair” went on, however, to develop a dizzying array of related but distinct meanings.  From “beautiful” it took on overtones of “elegant in speech and deportment” (as in “My Fair Lady”), as well as, regarding personal appearance, “without blemish” (“fair skin”) and “light” (particularly hair).  “Fair” gradually acquired connotations of “clean and pure” in matters of social conduct and character as well, and came to mean “equitable, not taking unfair advantage” (thus “fair deal,” “fair price,” etc.), as well as “unbiased” in matters of judgment (“fair trial”).

“Fare” is derived from a Germanic root meaning “to go or travel,” which gave us a verb “to fare” meaning “to travel” as well as a noun “fare” meaning “journey.”  The use of “fare” to mean “money charged to travel” appeared in the 15th century , and “fare” meaning “food served” is even older, dating back to the 1200s.  “Fare” meaning “food” probably originally referred to the meals encountered on one’s journey, which later broadened to include any meal.  Similarly, the sense of “fare” meaning “journey” or “mission” gave us compounds such as “seafaring” and “warfare.”  In the somewhat vaguer sense of “state of being,” it also gave us “welfare” meaning “well-being” or “condition of living.”

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