"fair to middling"--M. Quinion's article

Michael Quinion michael.quinion at BTINTERNET.COM
Fri Nov 9 09:35:08 UTC 2001

>     This is very helpful.  Michael Quinion antedates the earliest
> attestation thus far noticed (1860s) by some thirty years. And he
> specifies the nuanced grades (e.g., "middling fair") that he found
> in 19th-century American trade journals; I had previously received
> word of only four basic grades--good, middling, fair, poor.
>      The only point that comes to mind is that it would be good to
> have a few exact references of the trade journals using these
> specific grades.

Here are a couple that describe what seems to have been a standard
grading system:

1876-79 "The Globe encyclopaedia of universal information" p262/2 In
the C[otton]. trade a standard graduated scale of qualities is
recognised, that for Americans being, in descending series, 'fine,'
'good,' 'good fair,' 'fully fair,' 'middling fair,' 'good middling,'
'middling,' 'low middling,' 'good ordinary,' 'ordinary,' 'inferior.'

1868 Trowbridge, J.T. "A picture of the desolated states; and the
work of restoration 1865-1868" p280  The quality of Middle Tennessee
cotton never rates above "low middling," but generally below it, (the
different qualities of cotton being classed as follows: inferior,
ordinary, good ordinary, low middling, middling, good middling,
middling fair, good fair, and fine.)

Not all of these grades seem to have been quoted every time, perhaps
because the complete set was more than a little cumbersome. Several
adjacent grades were often amalgamated - hence "fair to middling"
being a shorthand expression for a range of grades. Here's another
example of the figurative sense:

1861 Mar "Southern literary messenger" 248 New music ... "Darling
Willie." As they say of cotton, "from fair to middling."

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
<editor at worldwidewords.org>

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