The English language is not fair!

Today I’m happy to host a very special language learner on Runaway Daydreamer. His name is Francis Boscoe. He’s currently learning Italian as his first foreign language, but in this article he will talk about how peculiar is his own language: English!

I’m pretty sure you’ll love this guest post, just like I did!

Over to you Francis!


I am a beginner in Italian, but I have a language partner on italki who is an expert in English. He does not think so, but I have yet to hear him make a major mistake. He keeps a notebook for writing down new English words, but in our first several conversations he only wrote one: fair. I found this interesting, because it is such a short and basic word that even young children know. But as I tried to define it, I realized how complicated it was, and how many meanings it had.

I used it to describe the current American economy. In this sense, “fair” means neither good nor bad. Many things can be described as fair with this meaning: athletic abilities, the condition of a comic book, the quality of an average meal.

But not the weather. “Fair” weather indicates an absence of precipitation and strong wind, and so really means good weather. A “fair weather friend” is a popular phrase meaning someone who is around only when times are good.

And not beauty. To be fair is to be beautiful, though this mainly is an old-fashioned usage and I think is conflated with yet another meaning of fair, which is light-colored, usually referring to skin or hair. Most English-speaking children have heard the wicked queen say “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” (The answer being Snow White).

Then there is the widely used sense of fair to mean just. A fair coin is one equally likely to come up heads or tails. A fair election is one where all have the opportunity to vote and all votes are counted. A fair price is one close to what most others have paid. When a small child is upset about something, he might say, using this sense, “but it’s not fair!”. 

Finally, used as a noun, a fair is another name for a small carnival or festival. 

This can result in some ambiguity. If I say the economy is fair, I may mean that it is neither good nor bad, or I may mean that it provides opportunity for all. Of course, it would never mean that the economy is beautiful or light-colored or a small festival.

The following English sentence, therefore, is perfectly correct: “I had a fair time at the fair – the food prices were fair, even though the ring-toss game was unfair – but between the fair weather and my fair skin, I got sunburned”. (Another way to say this: “I had an ok time at the carnival – the food prices were reasonable, even though the ring-toss game was rigged – but between the sunny weather and my light skin, I got sunburned”). Though only someone fond of wordplay would say something like this, I think that native English speakers could easily understand each of these senses of fair without the slightest hesitation or confusion. I find it amazing that our brains can work this way.

I only hope there are not too many words like this in Italian!

Your turn!

I’m so glad that Francis decided to share this great piece of writing with us. I’d love  to know what you have to say, especially if you’re a native English speaker.

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Chiara Grandola

Hey there! I'm Chiara, also known as Claire on the language learning community. I'm deeply in love with any form of art, different cultures and... guess what?! Yes, languages!

  • Gustavo

    Very interesting note! I once spoke with a Russian woman who lived in Brazil and she said that it was unfair (hehe) that Portuguese-speakers thought Russian is hard. She said she got confused with something similar to the “fair” case: in Portuguese, there are tons of words to express just one concept. She couldn’t keep track of them all 😛

  • Thanks Francis for the post. It’s fair to say that we could even have another post about all the uses of fair in expressions such as fair and square, fair deal, fair enough, fair game, fair play, the fairer sex, fair shake, and fair trade.