Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fair Play

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 11, 2010

The phrase “fair play” is certainly a very positive phrase and it was covered at Idiomation in May.  We thought the phrase should be revisited because there’s just so much to say about “fair play!”

Colorado, Maryland, Missouri and South Carolina have towns named “Fair Play”  and it’s easy to see how people readily believe that the phrase surely is an American phrase.

The last treaty with the Indians for the acquisition of lands east of the Allegheny mountains was held at Fort Stanwix in Pennsylvania on October 23, 1784.  That being said, the “Fair Play” system was already in place starting some time in 1773 and continuing through to May 1, 1785.  The system covered the townships of Old Lycoming, Woodward, Piatt, Porter, and a portion of Watson.  The “fair play” system was used to resolve disputes between settlers living on “Indian lands.”

By the 1800s, the phrase was well entrenched in the English language and appeared in such literary works as “The Linwoods” in the North American Review, Volume 0042, Issue 90 published in January 1836; “The Moral of the Crisis” in the United States Democratic Review, Volume 0001, Issue 1 published in October 1837; “Goodrich and Taylor on Domestic Education” in The North American Review, Volume 0048 Issue 103 in published in April 1839; “Hillhouse’s Poems and Discourses” in the North American Review, Volume 0050 Issue 106 published in January 1840; and “Congressional Eloquence” in the North American Review, Volume 0052 Issue 110 published in January 1841.  By the turn of the century, the word was well in use not only in literary works but also in print media including articles by the New York Times as early as 1901.

But once again, the prize for coining this phrase goes to William Shakespeare yet again as the phrase “fair play” was used in his play 0f 1598 entitled King John.   At the very beginning, in Act 5, Scene 2 in Lewis’ camp at St. Edmundsbury we find Lewis, Salisbury, Melun, Pembroke, Bigot, Cardinal Pandulph, a number of soldiers and a character referred to only as “Bastard.” 

BASTARD:
According to the fair play of the world,
Let me have audience; I am sent to speak:
My holy lord of Milan, from the king
I come, to learn how you have dealt for him;

And, as you answer, I do know the scope
And warrant limited unto my tongue.

Point, Shakespeare …. still.

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