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middling

[...]

1.1 Neither very good nor very bad.

(from here)

fair-to-middling

Slightly above average.

(from here)

Lexico didn't help me, though it kinda suggests that 'middling' means "average", whereas 'fair-to-middling' means "slightly better than average". How are they ranked in relation to each other?

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    It's pointless trying to "rank" expressions like this. Fair, middling, fair-to-middling, okay, so-so, not too bad, mustn't grumble,... are all effectively "equal" as a response to, say, How are you getting on these days? on meeting someone you haven't seen for a while. The "acid test" is whether any native speaker could ever reply with something like I'm XXX, but my wife is YYY with XXX and YYY being taken from my list (plus many more equivalent terms). And unquestionably, no-one ever would, because they're "equivalent". Sep 11, 2023 at 10:32

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I'm going to have to disagree with your source about the definition of fair-to-middling. I can't imagine anyone thinking it means "above average." Webster definitions:

  1. of middle, medium, or moderate size, degree, or quality
  2. MEDIOCRE, SECOND-RATE
  3. of, relating to, or being a middle class

On a five point scale, middling is a 3. Fair is a 2. Fair to middling is 2.5. I've often seen rating systems like this:

Poor - Fair - Acceptable - Good - Excellent

Middling would be a substitute for "Acceptable" in this context ("OK" would also work). Middling isn't that common of a word in spoken English. It's slightly archaic and often used playfully or ironically.

Of course, these are not very technical terms, so people may disagree on how they should be ranked. It could also be that British people use this word more and understand it differently. I speak American English.

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English point of view. Actually, it isn't directly related to the word acceptable. It is from flour milling. A yesteryear term for how the millstone was set up for grinding. Fair (fine), middling or coarse. But does now, when asked about how something is progressing or how someone feels, mean okay or acceptable. " I'm fair to middlin'." It hints at assistance or a change leading to the situation being improved. Usually, in a fairly easy way and with the help then being volunteered without being asked for - at least that's how it goes "down our way".

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  • Also, the phrase is heard regularly,at least in my region of England. "How ya doin'." Will often be greeted with " middlin ' how's yersen? ". Meaning, "I'm okay, how's yourself"?
    – bob
    Sep 11, 2023 at 10:25

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