Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Fair play

I had been preparing a post on the word "fair" but it seems to have been well covered now by a recent Language Log post so I will confine myself to the expression "fair play".

Fair play is commonly perceived, like its sometime synonym cricket, as quintessentially English in origin. A view well expressed in this letter to a newspaper:

One summer about 15 years ago we found ourselves camping in a rather smart French seaside resort.
It was hot, and there was quite a long walk to the popular beach, along a sandy path between pine-shaded holiday homes. Just before we reached the beach we came upon a notice board. I can't remember the exact details, but I know it instructed bathers - in French, of course - to be considerate towards other holidaymakers in the way they used the beach, which could get very crowded at times.
What I also recall, with great clarity, is that the instructions were summed up, not in formal, official French, but with two simple English words that leapt out at us: 'le fair-play'.
I'm not one of those people who believes in 'my country right or wrong'. I love the landscape of Britain, I like the people among whom I live, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But I'm of that generation that's always been more than a little suspicious of declarations of unthinking patriotism.
Yet, as I stood looking at that notice on that French beach I felt an unmistakable surge of pure pride in being British. Here was undoubted proof that we as a nation have given something unique and special to the world, something so characteristic of our nation that the French have no precise word for it and have to resort to English to say what they mean. ...
As I see it, it's that idea of 'fair-play' that allows us to call ourselves civilised. It's what being British is all about - or it ought to be.

At a more academic level, Anna Wierzbicka argues in English:Meaning and Culture that the concept of fairness is not universal but is unique to what she terms "Anglo" culture and hence untranslateable. She suggests that the notion of fair is coloured by that of fair play and ultimately derives from a sporting context. This sporting origin of the phrase is widely taken for granted, as her quotations show.

Yet historically, fair play in English is invariably found in a non-sporting sense, as used here by Adam Smith, for example, where fair has none of its modern connotations and play has nothing to do with games.

Man is generally considered by statesmen and projectors, as the materials of a sort of political mechanics. Projectors disturb nature in the course of her operations on human affairs; and it requires no more than to let her alone and give her fair play in the pursuit of her ends, that she may establish her own designs. Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which endeavor to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical

Even in the context of sport and games, fair seems to have simply meant legal or valid, as these examples show:

d. spec. in games. 1856 Spirit of Times (N.Y.) 6 Dec. 229/1 A player must make his first base after striking a fair ball. 1867 Routledge's Handbk. Football 41 Knocking on and throwing forward are disallowed: in case of this rule being broken a catch from such a knock or throw shall be equivalent to a fair catch. Ibid. 47 A Fair Catch is a catch from a kick, or a knock on from the hand but not from the arm of the opposite side, or a throw on, when the catcher makes a mark with his heel provided no one else on his side touch the ball. 1896 KNOWLES & MORTON Baseball 23 If the ball falls exactly on the foul line, it is a fair hit, unless it rolls into foul territory. 1935 Encycl. Sports 518/1 A fair catch can be made in a player's own In-goal. 1960 E. S. & W. J. HIGHAM High Speed Rugby xiii. 183 The method of making a fair-catch is to make a mark on the ground with the heel as the ball is caught, and to call: ‘Mark!’

And the expression is rarely used in English these days (with one notable exception mentioned below) in the sense of sporting conduct. This is not the case in other languages: in French and Italian fair play is the standard term for both sporting and sportsmanship. As the French Wikipedia entry notes:

Le terme anglais pour désigner le fair play est Sportsmanship (sportivité)

The use of the expression in a sporting context in English is largely confined to Fair Play Awards and the like, the origins of which seem suspiciously francophone. Such awards are given in recognition of acts of conspicuous selflessness in sporting competition. The first recipient of the oldest of these awards - the Pierre de Coubertin Medal - was not an "Anglo" but an Italian - it was the beneficiary of the noble deed who was English.

Intriguingly, then, in the sporting context, in which it is generally perceived to have arisen, the term "fair play" in modern English (and, just to be mischievous, perhaps the very concept) may actually be a borrowing - notwithstanding the obvious fact that the constituent words are English. It seems plausible that the expression took on its nobler sporting sense after it was borrowed into French (in 1856 apparently), whence it was borrowed back into English with its new trappings in the context of fair play awards etc.

How ironic if something commonly perceived to be so characteristically English (or "Anglo") were in fact an alien import - from a language which supposedly has no word for it:
Here was undoubted proof that we as a nation have given something unique and special to the world, something so characteristic of our nation that the French have no precise word for it and have to resort to English to say what they mean

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