Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Fair’s fair

This weekend was celebrated in the part of Scotland where I live as Glasgow Fair, a holiday which traditionally marked the start of a ‘fair fortnight’ when local factories closed down and a fair was held in the city. Although such local holidays have lost some of their former significance, plenty of them are still observed around the British Isles, often enjoying quaint names such as ‘the wakes’ (traditionally celebrating the anniversary of the dedication of a church and marked by staying awake all night), ‘the mop’ (originally a fair where labourers looking for employment carried an implement to show their profession) or ‘the hoppings’ (which is an allusion not to one-legged dancing but rather to the fact that the local festival marked the completion of the hop harvest).

In the Middle Ages these fairs were at the heart of local economic activity, and the importance they once had can be gauged by the fact that several have left their mark on the English language. The word ‘barnet’ is a case in point: the town of Barnet was once famous for its horse fair, and this gave rise to Cockneys adopting ‘Barnet Fair’ as rhyming slang for ‘hair’. Another example is the word ‘donnybrook’, meaning a brawl, which comes from a fair held at Donnybrook in Ireland which was notorious for violence until it was outlawed in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the strangest and most surprising example of a fair that has left its mark in the language is Saint Audrey’s Fair, which was traditionally held at Ely in Cambridgeshire on 17 October. The fair was noted for the sale of brightly coloured scarves, and these cheap-and-cheerful accessories were named after Saint Audrey and called ‘Saint Audrey’s lace’, later changed to ‘Tawdry lace’, which is the origin of the modern word ‘tawdry’.

Ian Brookes

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