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Let's Look At The Language

August 27, 2011

'Don't miss it, don't even be late' The Great New York State Fair is here

"Our state fair is a great state fair! Don't miss it, don't even be late. It's dollars to doughnuts that our state fair is the best state fair in our state!"

If you're familiar with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "State Fair," then chances are you just read the opening quote as the bouncy tune it was set to for the 1945 movie starring Jeanne Craine and Dana Andrews. It's the theme song that opens the movie, and it's become a household tradition for us when we're heading out for the New York State Fair.

As everyone is busy packing up their things for the day trip to Syracuse, the DVD plays in the background, and it's pretty tough not to get caught up in the characters' preparations for the fair.

Once we're on the road, we belt out a few a capella rounds of "Our state fair is a great state fair," share an obligatory chuckle over "the best state fair in our state," and the mood is set.

Throw in an iced-coffee stop on the way, add some reminiscences about fairs from years past, and it's already a good day, long before we even get to the fairgrounds.

The book that the musical "State Fair" is based on was written by Phil Stong in 1932. It takes place at the Iowa State Fair, a fair of national repute, well-known in large part thanks to Stong's best-selling novel and its successful string of spawns: a 1933 movie with Will Rogers, the 1945 movie musical, a 1962 remake featuring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, a 1969 stage version starring Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and the 1996 Broadway production, which actually (and appropriately) premiered on an Iowa State Fair stage on Aug. 12, 1995.

Pretty good PR for a state fair that began in 1854 with a budget of $323. I dare say it costs a bit more than that today for Iowa to draw its more than 1 million annual fairgoers. If New York state fairgoers want their own bragging rights, they needn't look far. Our state fair enjoys an even larger attendance and it is 13 years older than Iowa's.

In fact, ours -- drumroll, please -- is the oldest state fair in the country.

Yep, we've got a great state fair, and we're not shy about it -- the official name, after all, is "The Great New York State Fair."

You may have surmised that I'm a fair fan. Always have been. I grew up in a Connecticut town whose agricultural fair is the second-oldest in that state, and I was raised with an appreciation for what "the fair" has meant to agricultural communities throughout our history. As a lexicographer, I also have an appreciation for the history behind the word "fair."

In the sense "a periodic gathering for the sale of goods," the word was a Middle English (circa 1150—1470) term that appeared in such various forms as feire, feyre, faire, fayre, fayer, faier, and fare. It is derived from feria, the Latin for a "holy day," on which an English fair would typically be held. Today, you might occasionally see the spellings "faire" and "fayre," but only in pseudoarchaic usage -- that is, when the intention is to be quaintly old-fashioned, as in "ye olde country faire" or "a Victorian English fayre."

What is of particular interest to me is that the agricultural fair is not a particularly English tradition. In the New Oxford American Dictionary, this is the sense defined as "a competitive exhibition of livestock, agricultural products, and household skills held annually by a town, county, or state and also featuring entertainment and educational display." In the Oxford Dictionary of English, this sense is obligingly included but is clearly labeled "North American."

It would seem that if you'd like to do something not just truly New York but very much truly American, you couldn't make a better plan than a trip to the Great New York State Fair (through Sept. 5).

"Our state fair is a great state fair! Don't miss it, don't even be late. It's dollars to doughnuts that our state fair is the best state fair in our state!"

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/language.

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