April 01, 2004

Fair on the tunded

A CNN story headlined 'Girlfriend' photos upset prince contains the following passage.

Clarence House, the official residence of Prince Charles in London, refused to comment on The Sun's claims.

A spokesman told CNN: "It is not our policy to discuss the nature of Prince William's relationships with his friends. It wouldn't be fair on him or them."

Let's pass over in silence the residential metonymy, and focus instead on the adjectival complement structure "fair on him". I'd use "fair to him", myself. I do recognize "fair on him" as another low-frequency prepositional complement, but my rather vague sociolingustic associations with that pattern aren't consistent with use by a Royal Source. Suspecting a subtle Pythonic April fish, I decided to investigate further.

The OED doesn't have any examples of "fair on" in its entry for fair,. but it does have one in the entry for fratting, vbl. n., glossed as "Friendly relations between British and American soldiers and German women in the occupied parts of Western Germany after the war of 1939-45" "

1949 G. COTTERELL Randle in Springtime [...] II. ii. 45 You see all the men here go fratting and it simply isn't fair on us girls... I can't see what they see in these German women.

and another another in its entry for tund, v., glossed as "Winchester School slang. trans. To beat with a stick, esp. an ash rod, by way of punishment":

1876 LD. SHERBROOKE in Life & Lett. (1893) I. 12 To put a stick into the hand of a boy of sixteen and allow him to use it upon his schoolfellows..is neither fair on the tunder nor the tunded.

I'm not sure about the context of the Cotterell quote, but the sociolinguistics of tunding is clearly perfect for statements by Clarence House, and completely allayed my suspicions.

Google yields 2,030,000 hits for "fair to", vs. 237,000 for "fair on", but nearly all of the examples of "fair on" are things like "Career fair on Sept. 15" or "Black bass are fair on crankbaits and spinnerbaits near shallow rocky areas." In a sample of 100, I didn't find any examples at all of the Clarence House pattern, in which "fair on X" evaluates the equity of some event or circumstance with respect to the interests of X.

Searching for "not fair to" yields 138,000 hits vs. 7,230 for "not fair on". Most of the latter are exactly what we are looking for:

It is not fair on the monarch that many vitally important and often politically controversial "royal prerogative" powers ... should appear to be in her grasp when in fact they are exercised by ministers... [Guardian]

Oxfam sees the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement as imposing a one-size-fits-all approach, which is not fair on developing countries. [EU memorandum]

It is not fair on me or my loyal volunteer staff who have worked so very, very hard to build this site. [Psychics and Mediums Network (UK)]

All the genuine uses of "fair on" that I checked were from the UK, Australia or India. So if "fair on" is roughly 5% of the overall total -- 7230/(138000+7230) = .05 -- and is not used in the U.S. or (I think) Canada, it must be a significant fraction of the UK-ish use. But I'm still not clear on its social stratification, if any. The Clarence House quote means it can't be non-U -- but is it U or is it pan-UK?

[Update 4/2/2004: David Nash writes:

I can confirm what you've figured out by now, that "fair on" is normal to the Australian ear. My prediction at the answer to your question is that that there's no social stratification. But then I didn't realise it would sound strange to you guys. (Yet another defect of the Macquarie Dictionary is that it lacks both "fair on" and "fair to".)

I'm not surprised if it comes up more in neg contexts (NB the top ghit for "unfair on" is from the US...) I see that the Cobuild Dic lists among typical uses this, the only with with a PP complement: "This isn't fair on anyone, but it does happen." -- and I find something odd about ?"This isn't fair to anyone, but it does happen."

"Prediction at the answer"? At first I thought, aha, another Commonwealth usage for the collection, but "prediction at the answer" gets no ghits from anywhere, nor does "prediction at the result" or "prediction at the outcome", though "prediction as to the outcome" gets 130 and "prediction for the outcome" gets 352. So "prediction at" is probably another example of low-frequency variation in the meme pool, the raw material of memetic change.

As for "fair to anyone", it sounds fine to me. Many of the 2,920 examples in Google's index are directly comparable to David's example, and seem normal to me:
"It is a direct conflict of interest... It isn't fair to anyone."
"Remember - NEVER spontaneously decide to purchase a pet - its not fair to anyone involved."

As for the top ghit for "unfair on" -- a headline from a Hartford CT paper reading "Advocate unfair on satanic abuse" -- it seems fine to me, but after reading the associated letter to the editor, I interpret it as short for "[The Hartford] Advocate ['s story is said to be] unfair on [the topic of] satanic abuse". The letter writer is not complaining that the Advocate did not treat the interests of Satanic Abuse in an equitable manner -- the interests in question are those of therapists and patients in cases of alleged recovered memories, and "satanic abuse" is just a reference to the content of those memories, and thus a useful headline tag for the whole topic of the original story.

The other ghits on the first couple of pages seem to be other topical uses of "on", locative uses of "on" ("Life's unfair on welfare" = "Life on welfare is unfair") temporal uses of "on" ("Unfair? on 03/05/2003") or texts of commonwealth origin. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 1, 2004 06:43 PM