Wednesday, January 25, 2012

word: fair

Earlier today I happened upon a set of old articles on ALTA Language Services' Beyond Words blog thanks to the University of Chicago Magazine's twitter account.

October 2008's Ten most difficult words to translate was followed by May 2009's Five more difficult words to translate. This set of fifteen possibly untranslatable words comes from an eclectic set of languages (including a few with which I was completely unfamiliar). The only English word on the list was fairness, which was the subject of an Atlantic Monthly article and Beyond Words blog post earlier in 2009.

In Does fairness translate?: an economist and a linguist delve into the cross cultural variation of what we consider fair blog author Manny fulls together the various threads of the debate sparked by Bart Wilson's Atlantic Monthly article in what he refers to as a "nerdy linguistic mashup" and it's fascinating.

Is the concept of fairness uniquely Anglo-American? I don't think so, but I thought it might be interesting to take a look at our 1956 edition of A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, edited by Mitford M. Mathews of the U of C Press's now defunct Dictionary Department.
The word fair's first appearance (p. 577) explicates its usage as a noun as in a country fair or a church fair, with a mention of American football's fair ("technical name of putting the ball in play from the side line when out of bounds" per P.H. Davis, 1911).
More relevant to the question at hand are fair's adjectival uses (577-578). Interestingly the first entry regards the classification of cotton by quality. The various baseball-related uses (ie. fair vs. foul) appear second and never stray from the technical into the philosophical (n.b. fair ball is substantial enough to warrant its own entry). The third entry pertains to the finish of leather on leather goods. The fourth and final annotation delineates a number of frequent compound words/phrases (fair catch, fair-haired, fair shake, etc.).

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