Did someone say they won something 'fair and square,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.
For example, if someone says that they won a game ‘fair and square,’ they mean that they clearly won based upon the rules and did so without cheating.
‘Fair and square’ is an idiom that can be used as both an adverb and an adjective.
As an adverb, it has three definitions:
As an adjective, it means “unquestionably fair.”
For instance, let’s say that you and your friend are playing a competitive game of chess. You are both very invested in the game and doing everything you can to win.
At the same time, neither of you step outside the bounds of the game’s rules. No matter who wins, you can say that they won ‘fair and square.’
‘Fair and square’ is a very common phrase that has roots that stretch back centuries.
One of the earliest uses of the expression shows up in a work of Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, and statesman. In his 1604 essay “Of Prophecies,” we find the following line:
“Faire, and square. The gamester calls fooles holy-day.”
The use of the concept of the square refers to its symbolic meaning of impartiality and fairness. Since a square has four equal sides, it signifies equality and a lack of bias.
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that this idiom has indeed been used for a long time.
In fact, it shows up in an idioms dictionary published in 1830. Another example appears in the 1866 publication Runnymede and Lincoln Fair by John George Edgar:
“Appearances are nought when the passions of the great men are roused and their hands on the hilt of their swords. No later than Friday the barons deemed everything settled fair and square, and beguild themselves with the notion that henceforth the king would comport himself in accord with their wishes. But mark, my masters, what happens: King John goes back to Windsor, takes a second thought, and leaves under night, doubtless to take thought as to the means to get the upper hand.”
The phrase ‘fair and square’ is used more than once in a publication of 1876 records from the New York Court of Appeals.
Here’s one example:
“Now, what chance has the appellant to obtain justice, when the committee to whom the appeal is referred declares, ‘that it is a decided waste of their time’ to read the papers submitted to them to ascertain whether the brother had a ‘fair and square trial or not.’ It seems to us that it would be far better to abolish the right of appeal than thus reduce it to a mockery and a sham.”
For a third example, we look to The History of John Bull by Jonathan Swift, published in a collection of his works in 1814:
“I am not much for that, at present; we’ll settle it between ourselves: fair and square, NIc., keeps friends together. There have been laid out in this lawsuit, at one time, 36,000 pounds and 40,000 crowns: in some cases I, in others you, bear the greatest proportion.”
How would this idiom be used in a sentence?
Let’s take a look at some examples:
What other words and phrases have a similar meaning to this idiom?
Here are some options:
‘Fair and square’ is an old idiom that means “in an honest way” or “without a doubt.” For instance, if your school plays another school in a football game and there are no concerns that anyone cheated, you could say that the victorious team won ‘fair and square.’
Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!