Fair’s Fair

Language Log, that wonderful blog I mention on Slaw from time to time, has a recent post and a spate of comments on the English word “fair.” The matter was prompted by some writing by experimental economist (yes, Virginia, there are such things…) Bart Wilson, who has been working with “a pie-splitting problem known as the Ultimatum Game.” Lawyers might be interested in the matter of dividing up a pot, something that happens regularly in practice, albeit not in such a pristine fashion. But the real interest in this particular post lies in the examination of the simple word “fair” and Wilson’s assertion:

“Did you know that fair is one-to-one untranslatable into any other language–that it is distinctly Anglo in origin?”

The linguists at Language Log love to dismantle such claims and their readers love to add to the mêlée with examples and counterexamples from the world’s languages. Thus far in the comments we have Hungarian, Swedish, German, French, Chinese, Spanish and Slovenian.

Lawyers will have a special affection for “fair,” however, and Canadian lawyers will, I’m sure, be intrigued by the need to translate it into French in the various contexts in which it is used by judges and legislators. In fact, it seems to me that this simple-seeming issue would be well worth studying in the Canadian legal context to discern when “juste” or ” equitable” or “loyal” or… another term is appropriate for “fair.” For fun, start, as some of the commenters do, with the title to Rawls’ book “Justice as Fairness.


  1. I always have found it interesting that lawyers will use the word “fair” in contracts. The very argument highlighted above, that people can’t agree as to whether the word, and its associated meaning, exist in different languages, reminds me of how people can’t agree in English as to what is or is not “fair.” As a result, I think lawyers are better off drafting specific, inarguable obligations, and leaving the word “fair” for judicial opinions.