Fair is part of the core inherited vocabulary of Germanic, with a history going back to the earliest documentary records of the English language. Fair and fairness have both also figured prominently in recent political discourse. A widely quoted sentence from British prime minister David Cameron’s 2010 Conservative Party conference speech, for example, was:
Fairness means giving people what they deserve—and what people deserve depends on how they behave.
Fair has a very complex semantic history, and remains polysemous in contemporary use. Additionally, its core modern use is rather difficult to define, and has difficult relationships with a number of other important terms in contemporary social and political discourse. These tensions point to an interesting gap in Williams’s “vocabulary of culture and society,” at least in the context of contemporary discourse.
The Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) gives the following definitions of the main contemporary uses of fair, based on analysis of corpus data:
- Treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination; just or appropriate in the circumstances.
- (Of hair or complexion) light; blonde; (of a person) having a light complexion or hair.
- Considerable though not outstanding in size or amount; moderately good; (Australian /NZ informal) complete, utter.
- (Of weather) Fine and dry.
- (archaic) Beautiful.
If we look at large text databases, the most frequently found collocations today include fair share, fair amount, fair market, fair value, fair use. A recent big climb in frequency has been shown by fair trade. A decline since C19 is shown by fair wind, fair young [person], fair lady, fair sex, fair game. Two collocations that seem to have peaked around the turn of C20 are fair hearing and fair play.
If we take a much longer-range historical perspective, in Old English the core meaning of fair is “beautiful (to behold),” with occasional use with reference to behavior or conduct that is “free from impropriety, according to custom, appropriate, fit.” In Middle English, some important semantic complexity enters: a person’s appearance, speech, or conduct may be fair if it is “benign, kindly, gracious, courteous” (also if it is “beguilingly benign,” reflected later particularly by the collocation fair words). Alongside the meaning “according to custom, appropriate” we find (as defined by the Middle English Dictionary) “accordant with truth, reason, approved practice, or justice; right, proper, sound; equitable, impartial, just” and “morally good and proper,” as well as “highly to be approved of; splendid, excellent; fine, good.” The meaning “above average; considerable, sizable” also enters in this period.
OED (first edition) defines the core later meaning:
Of conduct, actions, arguments, methods: Free from bias, fraud, or injustice; equitable, legitimate. Hence of persons: Equitable; not taking undue advantage; disposed to concede every reasonable claim. Of objects: That may be legitimately aimed at; often in fair game.
Here we have equitable, rather than, as in ODE’s formulation, treating people equally. This suggests that there is ambiguity here even for lexicographers: the first part of the ODE definition, “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination,” would place fair in the same semantic category as a core use of equal and equality; by contrast, the second part of the definition, “just or appropriate in the circumstances,” brings us back to the same semantic area as OED’s equitable.
The semantic classification of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) can be helpful here. Fair appears in a total of eighty different HTOED categories, reflecting its high degree of polysemy. The relevant uses of fair and equitable appear together under the category “society/morality/rightness or justice/fair or equitable.” In this category, equal appears only as an obsolete synonym. Equitable and equity are difficult concepts, frequently defined by equation with fair and fairness; definitions of both sets of terms also typically draw in the word group of just and justice. However, working definitions of what is fair and equitable frequently invoke the concept of desert, precisely as in David Cameron’s formulation, “Fairness means giving people what they deserve.” Of course in an entirely egalitarian social and political framework, this may still equate with total equality of treatment, if all people are taken to be equally deserving, fundamentally. However, a very different construction is also possible, as in the second part of Cameron’s sentence, “what people deserve depends on how they behave.”
Reactions to this speech by David Cameron in the UK media in 2010 illuminate the ambiguity of the term fair as regards questions of culture and society. Some commentators pointedly equated fairness with egalitarianism and the reduction of inequality; others accepted Cameron’s hypothesis that fairness (also) involves taking into account the earned desert of the hard-working. Here we see the clearest evidence for a keyword in contemporary political debate. Struggles over the meaning of fairness encapsulate key divisions over questions of social justice, equity, and equality. It is probably no accident, therefore, that the debate has centered on a familiar item of core vocabulary, which is polysemous even in contemporary use and notoriously slippery and difficult to define in its relevant meanings. Everyone feels they know intuitively what it is to be fair, and that to be fair is a good thing; and such words are attractive verbal territory for politicians. The difficulty with the word and the difficulty of the debate come in determining what is fair in the context of a complex modern society. The shifting and conflicting relationships between fair (and fairness) and other words in this area of social and political discourse point up the importance of fair as a keyword in contemporary debate.