Issue 171, page 1

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complexions and beauty

A reader recently asked us to research the history of the word fair meaning "of light complexion" and determine whether the use of fair in the Bible had that meaning or the earlier sense of simply "beautiful".  We thought this might be interesting to the rest of our readers and share it here.

The earliest meaning of the English word fair is "beautiful" or "pleasing to the eye".  The word in this sense is first recorded in about 888 in King Alfred the Great's translation of the works of Boethius.  The English spoken at that time is known as Old English, and fair took the form ger.  It derives from the Old Teutonic root *fagro-z.  Surprisingly, the fair which means "free from bias, fraud, or injustice" comes from this same root, which in turn derives from an Indo-European root *fag-, with a meaning of "fitting" or "suitable". 

Fair with the meaning "beautiful" is no longer used today, except in literature, and even then it is considered somewhat archaic.  Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden all used it poetically in this sense. The "complexion" sense of fair does not appear in the written record until 1551; it is likely that it was in use with the "light of complexion" meaning for half a century to a century before that.  This meaning simply developed from the notion that women of light complexion were considered beautiful, as light skin meant a woman was not working outside, the fate of the lower classes.  Just as today a tanned woman is considered desirable, a light-skinned woman was considered desirable in the early Renaissance period.  The "beautiful" meaning of fair was applied to women who had light skin, as they were considered beautiful, and the “light-skin” meaning slowly replaced the "beautiful" meaning.  Note that fair does not imply light eyes.  It simply means "of light skin" and/or "having light hair".

The word fair as used in the Bible meant "beautiful" instead of "of a light complexion".  People who assume that fair in the Bible means "of a light complexion" versus simply "beautiful" are making an incorrect assumption. The Hebrew word that was most often translated in the Old Testament into English "fair" was towb, which meant "pleasing to the senses".  There is absolutely no indication of complexion or hair color in this at all.  The same is true in the New Testament, where the Greek word for "fair" (kalos) meant "beautiful" or "pleasing".  These examples are all from the King James Version, but a brief glance at other versions shows that their use of fair with regard to women was translating the same Hebrew or Greek word.

* If you came down here looking for a footnote about an ancient root word, we should explain something about asterisks. When placed before a word, an asterisk indicates that the word is a reconstruction. That is, it comes from a time before writing and, while many  linguists would insist that it must have existed, the word following the asterisk remains a "best guess".

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