Q&A: Fair vs fare

Fair vs fare

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's all fair game…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a fair question.

A: If it’s about how they fit all those rides onto the back of the truck to move to the next town, we have absolutely no idea…

Q: No, not that kind of fair. I’m trying to work out if it should be “fair” or “fare” when you say, “how well did you fair/fare” at something. Help!

A: Fair enough. 

Q: Because to me, apart from the win-giant-stuffed-toys carnival variety, “fair” usually means either light in colour/weather (e.g. “fair hair”) or unbiased (“it was a fair decision”). And “fare” I would associate with the cost of a ticket or taxi ride. Neither seem correct!

A: You’re absolutely right about “fair”. And by the way, the “fairground” you speak of debuted in English in the 1740s – stemming Old French “feire” meaning market or feast day.

Q: Oh yeah, of course, I forgot about that kind of fair. That seems fair. 

A: Eventually the market stalls became carnival games and they added rides. It all links back to Latin words for “festival”.

Q: We’re getting off topic though. I want to know about asking someone, “how well did you fair/fare”?

A: Yes, yes, we’re getting to that. So “fare” has only meant “payment for passage/travel” (or the person paying) since the 1500s. For three centuries prior to that it was used for food or provisions (e.g. “a tasty fare”) – still used today. It also meant “a journey or an expedition”, including the verb “to fare”. This meaning is no longer used today, except in things like “a seafaring vessel” or “a wayfarer” – someone who makes their own way on foot.

Q: So, “to fare” used to be a way of saying to travel?

A: That’s right. It lives on in more words like “warfare” (a war expedition) and “thoroughfare” (a way or passage through something). And “farewell”.

Q: Oh, okay. Already? Um, goodbye.

A: No, the WORD “farewell” – it makes so much sense when you think of it as someone saying to “travel well”.

Q: Oooooh, so it does!

A: And THAT is the easiest way to remember that it should be “fare” that you choose for your example. “How well did you fare in the test?” – where “fare” is all about performing in a specific situation over time. The actual meaning is described by Macquarie Dictionary as “to experience good or bad fortune”.

Q: So, anytime you want to enquire about someone’s fortunes, you’ll ask about how they “fared”?

A: That’s right. Meanwhile, you’ll rarely see “faired” used at all in past tense.

Q: But you might hear “fair to middling”!

A: Well yes, that was one of Allison’s favourite podcast phrases on So you want to be a writer! It means “so-so” or “average” and actually comes from the US cotton growing industry around the Civil War era, relating to quality of the crop.

Q: And “fair dinkum”?

A: That classic Aussie slang was brought to Australia by UK settlers in the late 1880s. “Dinkum” already meant honest or true, but using “fair” made it even more unbiased!

Q: Well, I had feared this would be more difficult.

A: No, it's all fairly easy today. Just remember “farewell” if you’re ever stuck and that should remind you to use “fare” in those “how did you go?” good-or-bad fortune situations.

Q: Or maybe you just think of when an Uber fare costs a fortune?

A: Sure, although they’ll probably say that the pricing was fair.

Q: Well, I think we’ve fared well today in successfully giving this topic a fair hearing. 

A: Agreed. Farewell!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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