Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


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When is a fair not a fair but a fête? Mainly in Ambridge.


(For the benefit of non-UK readers, Ambridge is a fictitious village, not the Ambridge, Pennsylvania. It is the setting for The Archers, the world’s longest-running soap, and a radio drama series that has been running since the year of my birth [don’t ask!] The people mentioned in this blog are characters in it.)

Recently, lexically inquisitive Lexi asked why the annual Ambridge extravaganza was billed as a fête not a fair. Her question revealed, as a tweetalonger put it, ‘Roy’s etymological deficit’. So, to help Roy’s courtship of this formidable woman (she holds an M.A. from Plovdiv, and is fruit-picking to help finance her doctorate at Sofia university), here’s a crib sheet. (Don’t ask what crib sheet has to do with Baby Jesus’s cradle, pretty please, Lexi!)

(This is also the kind of thing that Lynda might like to mug up on – surreptitiously, of course.)

Let’s start with fair, the older of the two words.

What does it mean, where does it come from, and how long has it been used in English?

What it means

Well, like so many English words it is affected by ‘polysemy’ That’s not a form of potato blight. It’s a sort of Lynda word for ‘many meanings.’ It affects all the most common words in English – e.g., ‘common’ doesn’t just mean ‘frequent’ it also means Tracy Horrobin, Matt, et al. (For teacher’s pets, here’s the pronunciation).

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comprehensively defines the original and core meaning of fair as: ‘A periodical gathering for the buying and selling of goods, at a place and time set out by charter, statute, or ancient custom, and often incorporating sideshows, competitions, and other entertainments.’

The first citation shown is from around 1300, and the next is from Piers Plowman: ‘Ich wente to þe Feire With mony maner marchaundise.’ [I went to the fair with many kinds of merchandise; note that spelling Feire].

The ‘Scarborough Fair’ of the famous ballad would have been of this kind, as would London’s huge and long-running Bartholomew Fair – around which Jonson based his homonymous play.

  1. Now, it wasn’t just the Tom Archers of this world who went to fairs to sell their (putrid) wares: just as in Ambridge, the less obsessive went for the gossip and the entertainment provided by the sideshows – in those halcyon days before ferret racing was ever dreamt of and fruit-picking was a purely domestic affair.

Out of those fripperies grew the sense of ‘funfair’. As the OED puts it: ‘Chiefly Brit. A gathering for entertainment at which rides, sideshows, and other amusements are set up, typically (but not always) on a temporary or periodical basis; the place at which such rides and amusements are set up.’

The OED says it’s often hard to separate that meaning from the first one, but their first example clearly refers to what we (and the recently totally silenced Henry – what ever happened to him? Has Rob eaten him?) understand by a fair:

1763   London Chron. 8 Jan. 1/3   ‘On Saturday the River Thames was frozen over so hard at Isleworth, that a fair was kept on it all day… There was a round-about for children to ride in, and all sorts of toys sold.

And then there’s Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow (1921): ‘Crome’s yearly Charity Fair had grown into a noisy thing of merry-go-rounds, cocoanut shies, and miscellaneous side shows—a real genuine fair on the grand scale.’

3.  Related to meaning 1 is the sort of trade fair that could really be a step change for the village if Ambridge had its own one: ‘an exhibition, esp. one designed to publicize a particular product or the products of one industry, country, etc. Frequently with modifying word.’ The London Book Fair or the Frankfurt Book Fair are examples. Perhaps Tom Archer should think about setting up a fermented foods trade fair: KimchAm 2017 (Kimchi + Ambridge) has a certain je ne sais quoi, but I’m sure readers can supply something rather better.

4 Then, briefly, there’s the meaning sometimes Merrye-Englanded as fayre, such as a church fair, ‘an event at which homemade or second-hand goods are sold to raise money for charity, often incorporating competitions, displays, sideshows, etc.’

Now, just to confuse Lexi, the OED equates that  last meaning to fête. And the picture here shows a church event called ‘fair’. But the great and the good of Ambridge decided to call it a fête. Why? Perhaps it sounds jollier than ‘fair’ and avoids the vulgar connotations of commercial funfairs. Moreover, if you google village fete it gets many fewer hits than village fair, so Ambridge is not following majority language use. But then if you use quotation marks in your search, ‘village fete’ is the winner. Other than that, who knows? I think it would be best to ask the organizers.

Sorry, Lexi. English is a bit like that.

As Dickens put it, in the mouth of one of his characters: ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.’ (By ‘Strangers’ he meant ‘foreigners’.)

Where did the word come from?
Like tens of thousands of English words, from French feire (compare the 1390 quotation above.) Which in turn comes from late Latin feria, the singular of feriae, ‘holy days’ on which such fairs were often held. The Latin word has descendants in other Romance languages too: una feria in Spanish means ‘fair’ as in 2 and 3 above; un día feriado in Latin American Spanish is a public holiday; the Portuguese words for Monday-Friday all contain the word feira, e.g. Segunda-feira (Monday), literally ‘second fair’.

Fête

Is much more recent. In the unrevised OED entry, where it is defined as ‘A festival, an entertainment on a large scale’, it first appears in a quotation of 1754 from Horace Walpole’s letters i.e. ‘The great fête at St. Cloud’ and later in Thackeray’s 1848 Pendennis ‘The guests at my Lord So-and-so’s fête’.

The ‘village fête’ meaning goes back only to 1893, defined as ‘A bazaar-like function designed to raise money for some charitable purpose.’ The year after we find arch-aesthete Walter Pater offering ‘Sincere congratulations on the success of the Fête.’ Which makes one wonder, who will be writing to congratulate Ambridge?

Like fair, fête too comes from Latin via French: Old French feste (noun), from Latin festa, neuter plural of festus ‘joyous’. Spanish has the ‘same’ word as fiesta.

So, Lexi, there you have it. Not exactly in a nutshell, though. What does in a nutshell mean, you ask. You use it to tell people that you are about to say something in very few words, or briefly, usually when summing up an explanation or reason you have just given. Think of a hazelnut and its shell, and you’ll see you can’t fit many words in there. How would you say that in Bulgarian?

PS: It’s ok to write fete without its little hat, or circumflex accent, if you like, but I’m sure in Ambridge they would insist on it.

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