What Does Fair to Middling Mean?

Fair to Middling

Definition: So-so, moderately good; slight above average.

Origin of Fair to Middling

This expression comes from agriculture and commerce. Farmers and merchants used a grading system to label the quality of different agricultural products. Those of the best quality were fine or good. Next came fair and middling. After that came ordinary. That of the lowest quality was inferior.

This classification system existed in the 1700s and 1800s for many things including cotton and sheep. People began using fair to middling for non-agricultural products in the 1800s.

Nowadays, it implies that something is decent, yet nothing special. Therefore, despite sounding positive (better than average), people often use this as a slight insult.

Examples of Fair to Middling

expression fair to middlingIn the dialogue below, two men use the idiom when discussing what to do this evening.

Robert: Hey! Are you ready to go out to eat? Maybe we should try that new restaurant that just opened down the street.

Marty: Actually, I went there a few days ago. I don’t think you’d like it.

Robert: Really? Why not? Is the food really bad?

Marty: No, the food isn’t bad. I’d say it’s fair to middling. The reason you wouldn’t like it is the atmosphere. It’s designed for a younger generation. There’s lots of loud music and dim lighting. It’s really hard to see or hear.

Robert: Okay. We can do something else instead.

fair to middling saying The second dialogue shows two students who are talking about which classes to take next semester.

Josh: I still have a few pre-requisite courses to take before I can take the classes I’m really interested in. I was thinking about taking the environmental history class with Professor Sherbert. You took that one, right? Was it any good?

Jeff: It was all right, but it wasn’t great. I’d say it was fair to middling. You should take the class with Professor Donahue instead. That one is amazing, and super useful.

Josh: Okay. Thanks for the advice.

More Examples

This excerpt is from a review of a play. The reviewer was not very impressed.

  • So how good is this particular production of this theatrical treasure? It’s fair to middling, at least on the (final preview) night I was there. I suspect the show will improve; things looked under-rehearsed Thursday night, with Vander Broek, a lively actress who carries a lot of heavy freight here, still not sufficiently relaxed with her text. There is also a lot of unnecessary air in the show. –Chicago Tribune

This example is from a restaurant review. He says that one half of his meal was very good, but the other half was underwhelming.

  • Actually, I’d say the whole overachieving menu feels a bit that way. “You might want to order something green,” it says, naggingly, right under the bangers and mash ($14), which, for the record, is a complex but tasty sausage (of Spencer-like quality) accompanied by a fair-to-middling mash not quite up to its pal on the plate. –Chicago Tribune


The phrase fair to middling means decent yet also implies not great. Therefore, it is not the best choice of wording to compliment something.