Thursday, February 27, 2014

Language of Confusion: So Unfair

Homophones are the most frustrating form of words for us writerly types. We spend hours upon hours type-type-typing and get told “It’s d-u-e, not d-o” because of course one of the most basic words in the English language has to have a word that sounds exactly the same pronunciation, but it means something completely different, and oh yeah, don’t forget it’s spelled different, too. I could go on a much longer rant about this. But I won’t. This time.

Anyway, the word fair, as inspired by Melissa’s Grammar Post Monday last week. There are two tenses for the word, the adjective (the weather is fair) and the noun (the fair is in town!) and they both come from different places. Pleasant fair comes from the Old English faeger, roughly the same meaning, and before that, it was fagraz in Proto Germanic. The other fair, the place that you can go to, showed up in the early fourteenth century from the Anglo French feyre and the Old French feire. Those words come from the Vulgar Latin feria, holiday or market fair, and the classical Latin feriae, holiday.

But there’s also the homophone, fare, which has both a noun version (like bus fare) and a verb (how do you fare?). Both do come from the same word, the Old English faran, to journey, but the noun for fare came by way of another Old English word, faer, which is a journey, or a road. The word faran can be traced back to the Proto Germanic faranan, and before that the Proto Indo European por-, going or passage. So the reason we pronounce fair and fare the same is because somewhere between Proto Indo European and Proto Germanic, a P switched to an F. Because of course it did.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. So unfair!
    You realize you have a lifetime supply of material for these posts, don't you?

  2. And you didn't even get to fairy. Or faerie.

  3. Looking at the old worlds like faran and faranan, I find myself thinking these could be handy words to use for a character name.

  4. (If only the author of the book I was reading last night realized she meant altar (they were in a church) rather than what she used--alter. Sigh.)

    This makes me think about how they tried to simplify English a couple centuries ago, changing faire to fair. Just to make our life more difficult.

  5. Glad I could inspire a post. :D
    Homophones... the bane of writerly existence. LOL


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