fair to middlin'
Does anyone know if this common phrase has roots in the railroad industry? A co-worker of mine claims it is a corruption of a railroad conductor singing out "Fare to Midland," or something to that effect. I always thought it meant just what it says: OK, not great, not bad. Any ideas?
Lewis Joplin II
Here's an entry from "Southern Stuff: Down-home Talk and Bodacious Lore from Deep in the Heart of Dixie" by Mildred Jordan Brooks (Avon Books, New York, 1992): "fair to middlin', adj. Just so-so. Not so hot."

In my opinion, it doesn't have anything to do with the railroad. But, then, you never know about phrases.

I was told fair to middlin' was an above average grade of sheep wool. Anybody know?
I'm fairly certain that the "middlin'" used in this phrase is "mid-line," as in half way between a good and bad rating. If "fair" is then understood as being being above the mid-line but not particularly good in itself then a range is being described between that and a rather neutral middle. Basically, not "bad."
Frank Pierce
It refers to two distinct grades of cotton, and is used in the cotton trade. We use it in exactly the same way in common speech when we say that something is "fair to middlin".

This per a cotton musemum near Dallas Texas which specialized in the history of Texas cotton in the days before the industry dried up. They had samples of both fair and middling staples.

I have heard this in reference to grades of cotton as well. That it is a "better" grade of cotton, but I defer you to the Texas historacle reference.
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