Q: Would you consider an article on the origin of “fair enough”? I recently read an online comment that suggested it originated in wooden boat building. I’m skeptical, but stumbling around on Google hasn’t gotten me an answer.
A: There’s no evidence that “fair enough,” an expression dating from the early 19th century, has its origins in boat building. All of the early examples we’ve seen are from ordinary conversation.
The oldest we’ve found is from an opinion piece originally published in the Baltimore Whig: “G. Your plan seems fair enough. T. Fair enough! Can any thing be fairer?”
The article, an imaginary dialogue between “Gaius” and “Titus” on political subjects, was reprinted in the Virginia Argus (Richmond) on Oct. 28, 1813.
That example uses “fair enough” as the adjectival complement of a verb (as in “sounds fair enough,” “looks fair enough,” “that’s fair enough,” “appears fair enough,” and so on), not as an expression that stands alone.
The stand-alone expression “fair enough” emerged slightly later, and is the equivalent of “that’s reasonable” or “I accept that,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And again, all of the OED’s examples are from everyday dialogue.
This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Two per cent discount—fair enough.” From The Itinerant (Vol. VI, 1817), a memoir by the English actor Samuel William Ryley. (The discussion is about lodgings at an inn.)
And Oxford has this example from conversation in a British novel: “ ‘Let me hear what the service is, and then I will answer you.’ ‘Fair enough.’ ” From The Adventures of Captain Blake: Or, My Life, by William Hamilton Maxwell (1835).
We’ve also found mid-19th-century examples in newspapers published in the US and in Australia: “Fair enough! cried I” (New York Daily Tribune, July 25, 1844) … “ ‘Fair enough,’ said he” (Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, March 19, 1853). So the expression was familiar to speakers of British, American, and Australian English.
But none of the OED’s examples of “fair enough” refer to boat building, and neither do any 19th-century examples we’ve found in old databases.
The dictionary’s only marine-related definition of the adjective “fair” is this one, in reference to weather: “Of the wind, etc.: favourable to the course of a ship, aircraft, etc.” Written uses date from late Old English.
And the dictionary’s only construction-related definition of the adjective is this one: “Of a line, curve, or surface: free from roughness or irregularities; smooth, even.”
For instance, phrases like “fair line,” “fair curve,” “fair plane” and so on mean a line (curve, etc.) that’s perfectly smooth—in any kind of carpentry, not specifically boat building.
Written examples of that usage in carpentry date from the late 15th century, but the OED’s only boat-building examples are modern ones—from Popular Mechanics in April 1939 (“to level everything off to a fair line”), and from a 2003 book, Don Danenberg’s How to Restore your Wooden Runabout (“to achieve fair surfaces”).
We should also mention that a verb, to “fair,” emerged in carpentry in the early 19th century and meant to smooth or blend the lines of a ship (later, an aircraft or motor vehicle). But this verb first appeared in 1822, which was after the conversational expression “fair enough,” so any connection is highly unlikely.
In websites devoted to boat construction and restoration, we’ve seen many uses of the verb “fair” and its derivatives in reference to the smoothing of a hull or other surface.
For example, enthusiasts speak of “fairing” a surface,” the “fairing” process, “fairing compound” or “fairing mix,” and they occasionally use “fair enough” to mean smooth enough. But all these uses came long after “fair enough” was a general expression for “I accept that.”
As for the etymology of the adjective “fair,” it was inherited from Germanic languages in which it meant beautiful, pleasant, bright, etc. It’s been known in writing since early Old English (fæger), where at first it was mostly used to describe good-looking men, a sense later transferred to women.
That general use of “fair”—for attractiveness in people or things—is “now somewhat archaic and literary,” Oxford says. It’s still sometimes found in uses like “your fair city,” “the fair sex,” “my fair companion,” and other courtly-sounding phrases.
From its early Old English senses of beautiful, agreeable, and pleasing, “fair” moved on and acquired additional meanings in Old and Middle English.
Because Germanic notions of beauty were often associated with lightness and brightness, “fair” sometimes meant light-colored hair or complexion. Other senses implied abstract notions rather than physical attributes: favorable, unbiased, honest, just, equitable, legitimate, reasonable, and so on.