Q From John Rupp, Dallas, Texas: I have often heard the phrase fair to Midland (middlin’?) in response to the inquiry ‘How are you doing?’ Any ideas on the origins of this phrase?
A As you hint, the phrase is more usually fair to middling, common enough — in Britain as well as North America — for something that’s moderate to merely average in quality, sometimes written the way people say it, as fair to middlin’.
With an initial capital letter, fair to Midland is a Texas version of the phrase, a joke on the name of the city of Midland in that state. A Texas rock band called themselves Fair to Midland after what they described as “an old Texan play on the term ‘fair to middling’”. American researcher Barry Popik has traced it to May 1935 in a report in the New York Times, “Dr. William Tweddell ... is what might be called a fair-to-Midland golfer.”
But we do occasionally see examples of fair to midland in American contexts without a capital letter and without any suggestion of humour:
While overall attendance was fair to midland — the championship session drew about 800 — the Bartlett student section was outstanding.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Illinois), 31 Dec. 2011.
This lower-case fair to midland version is recorded in Massachusetts in 1968, which suggests that even then it had already lost its connection with Texas. It might be folk etymology, in which an unfamiliar word is changed to one that’s better known. But it’s an odd example, as middling isn’t so very uncommon. It may be that people tried to correct middlin’ to a more acceptable version that lacked the dropped letter but plumped for the wrong word.
All the early examples of fair to middling I can find in literary works are similarly American, from authors such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and Artemus Ward. To go by them, it looks as though it became common on the east coast of the US from the 1860s on. However, hunting in newspapers, I’ve found examples from a couple of decades before, likewise from the east coast. This one was in a newspaper review of the current issue of The Ladies’ Companion:
These three articles are the best in the present number — of the rest, most are from fair to middling.
Boston Morning Post, 6 Feb. 1841.
The earliest of all I’ve so far found comes from an article in the July 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia: “A Dinner on the Plains, Tuesday, September 20th. — This was given ‘at the country seat’ of J. C. Jones, Esq. to the officers of the Peacock and Enterprise. The viands were ‘from fair to middling, we wish we could say more.’”
So the phrase is American, most probably early nineteenth century. But where does it come from? There’s a clue in the Century Dictionary of 1889: “Fair to middling, moderately good: a term designating a specific grade of quality in the market”. The term middling turns out to have been used as far back as the previous century both in the US and in Britain for an intermediate grade of various kinds of goods — there are references to a middling grade of flour, pins, sugar, and other commodities.
Which market the Century Dictionary was referring to is made plain by the nineteenth-century American trade journals I’ve consulted. Fair and middling were terms in the cotton business for specific grades — the sequence ran from the best quality (fine), through good, fair, middling and ordinary to the least good (inferior), with a number of intermediates, one being middling fair. The form fair to middling sometimes appeared as a reference to this grade, or a range of intermediate qualities — it was common to quote indicative prices, for example, for “fair to middling grade”.
The reference was so well known in the cotton trade that it escaped into the wider language. Some early figurative appearances in newspapers directly reflect the market usage:
Twenty-five cents a line, then, may be quoted as the present commercial value of good poetry ... fair to middling is probably more difficult of sale.
New York Daily Times, 29 May 1855.
I have only the opinions of some who patronized her entertainments, who profess to be judges of such things. Verdict, as the Price Current says, “fair to middling with downward tendency.”
The Wabash Express (Terre Haute, Indiana), 18 May 1859.
The figurative term starts to appear in Britain in the 1870s, but early examples are all in stories imported from across the Atlantic. Even that seemingly most home-grown British composition, Austin Doherty’s Nathan Barley: Sketches in the Retired Life of a Lancashire Butcher of 1884, written in local dialect, includes it in the speech of an old school fellow who had emigrated and made his money in Michigan. So it was known but labelled as an Americanism. It took until the twentieth century for it to begin to be used unselfconsciously.