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Fare-thee-well or fare-you-well are AmE expressions which appear to date back to the late 18th century:

(informal chiefly US) a state of perfection: the steak was cooked to a fare-thee-well. (Collins Dictionary)

According to Etymonline its related meaning, to the last degree is from late 19th century:

Expression to a fare-thee-well "to the last degree" is by 1884, American English.

Its origin is unclear, the Phrase Finder has no clue:

Curiously, the OED has nothing (that I could find) for "fare-thee-well," but has this: "U.S. colloq. to a fare-you-well: to the last point; to the utmost degree; completely." No explanation in either dictionary of why a synonym for "good-bye" has taken on this meaning.

The AHD appears to suggest that its meaning is an extension of its literary one:

[From fare thee well, may it go well with you, goodbye.]

Where does the current meaning of this AmE idiomatic expression come from?

Is there a reason why it evolved in AmE and not in BrE given that “fare thee well”, literally speaking, were known and used in both sides of the pond?

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    I never heard this one, but it looks like a malapropism / whimsical variation of [I like my steak] fairly well [done]. – FumbleFingers Dec 28 '17 at 15:45
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    FWIW, Google Books claims over 12,000 written instances of the noun usage a fare thee well. The fifth entry in that list is from The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, which defines it as To the most extreme degree, especially a condition of perfection. For example, We've cleaned the house to a fare-thee-well, or He played the part of martyr to a fare-thee-well. This term first appeared as to a fare-you-well in the late 1800s, and the more archaic-sounding present form replaced it about 1940. – FumbleFingers Dec 28 '17 at 15:52
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    It's anecdotal, and so not answer-worthy, but I grew up with the expression. My grandmother used it exactly as described - though "state of perfection" was shaded more toward a sense that whatever it was had been done to the point where one was ready to say goodbye to it. A steak done to a fare-thee-well was likely done Pittsburgh, i.e., cooked to the state of charred shoe leather. A child spanked to a fare-thee-well was well, truly and finally punished. – Rob_Ster Dec 28 '17 at 15:58
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    ... @user159691 For Rob's 'It's anecdotal, and so not answer-worthy' read 'The following is an anecdote; as I can't find supporting evidence to add, I'll stick with a 'comment' rather than give an unsupported 'answer'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 28 '17 at 17:08
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    For contemporary use, COCA has 25 appearances of 'fare-you-well' from 1995 to 2014 in the sense at hand. It's interesting that of the 7 total in the last decade, three are from Houston newspapers and 2, more broadly, from Christian journals (one newspaper, one magazine). The remaining 2 of the 7 are from fiction. – JEL Dec 31 '17 at 19:18
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+100

My research suggests that at least a strong influence on the use of '[done] to a fare-you-well' (also later '[done] to a fare-thee-well') in the sense of "[done] to perfection", with reference to food, was quite probably the generalization and colloquial adoption of the sense of 'farewell' in the earlier noun phrase 'farewell blow' used both half-literally (a metaphorical 'goodbye' or 'farewell' along with a literal stroke or blow that puts an end to something), and wholly metaphorically.

For the noun 'fare-you-well' (the earlier variant with the pertinent sense), OED specifies "U.S. Colloq.", and derives it from the verb 'to fare'. The verbal sense cross-referenced is

Used in imperative with well, as an expression of good wishes to a parting friend, or as a mere formula in recognition of parting....

OED provides, however, as the only definition of 'fare-you-well', its use in the phrase

to a fare-you-well: to the last point; to the utmost degree; completely.

The OED's earliest attestation, from the 1886 (1884 copyright date) publication of Dr. Sevier (George W. Cable) is surprisingly infirm but, finally, perhaps justified. The attestation is

And then it means a house.., and milk, anyhow, till you can't rest, and buttermilk to fare-you-well.

That version of the quote, from the 1886 standalone publication, differs from the earlier (1884) version of the story as published in the September 1884 (copyright date 1883) edition of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, where it appears with a comma between "buttermilk to" and "fare-you-well".

The complete context, however, suggests the interpretation given by OED may be correct, regardless of what might be either editorial insertion or deletion of a comma, because the passage is devoted to various expressions of finality:

..."'My day's work's done,' sezee; 'I done hoed my row.'". A responsive neigh came out of the darkness ahead. "That's the trick!" said the man. "Thanks, as the felleh says." He looked to Mary for her appreciation of his humor.
  "I suppose that means a good deal; does it?" asked she, with a smile.
  "Jess so! It means, first of all, fresh hosses. And then it means a house what aint been burnt by jayhawkers yit, and a man and woman a-waitin' in it, and some bacon and cornpone, and may be a little coffee, and milk, anyhow, till you can't rest and buttermilk to, fare-you-well.

With the comma (and correction of "to" to "too"), 'fare-you-well' in the passage seems to have interjectory force, with the meaning being "that's it" or "that's all". Without the comma (the later version), the meaning of 'buttermilk to fare-you-well' seems to be something like "buttermilk to put you right" or "buttermilk to top it off".

Although OED doesn't attest the appearance of the sense again until 1910, I find it twice in 1892 with a meaning approximating 'a final blow':

The bar-keeper was smacked in the face with a rock and had his mug badly disfigured. A side partner also received a "fare you well" in the nose and went to sleep.

The Sedalia Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri) 10 May 1892 [paywalled].

As is usual in Kansas City the visitor carried with him the sympathy of the audience, and when he was tried out in the latter end of the race [a shooting match] he was encouraged to a "fare-you-well," every kill being applauded. The shooting as a whole was considerably below par.

Forest and Stream, December 1892.

Subsequent to those 1892 appearances, the phrase begins to be used frequently with the general sense of 'to finality, to the end, to perfection' in various contexts in the popular press: horse-racing (1893); sale prices for clothing (two distinct uses in 1894, with repetition of one in early 1895; another in 1896); commercial enterprise successes (1894); the beating of tenor drums (1894); methods of nominating candidates (1895); legal battle (1896); the fate of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner after the shooting of the albatross (1896); a commercial success (1896); brasswork polish (1896); commercial successes generally (1896); football center position play (1896); explanation of mysterious matters (1896); Republican party resolutions (1896); and etc. into the next century.


Noting the similar but earlier figurative and semi-literal uses of 'farewell blow', a phrase used with comparable frequency in the US and the UK to mean 'a blow or another action that completes [something]', I investigated those uses.

I found the phrase in use throughout the 1800s. Many appearances in the later 1800s were in a widely reprinted (in the U.S.) story about a miner discovering the "Welcome Stranger" gold nugget in Australia. The story was first printed in 1884, and appeared throughout 1885 into 1886:

The Welcome Stranger. — Down in their mine three disappointed gold diggers looked gloomily around, with a kind of sulky regret at having to leave the scene of so much useless toil. "Good bye," said one, "I'll give you a farewell blow," and raising his pick he struck the quartz, making splinters fly in all directions. His practiced eye caught sight of a glittering speck in one of the bits at his feet.

Tid-Bits, November 8, 1884, reprinted from Cassell's Saturday Journal.

The 'farewell blow' in this story is a blow that precipitates success. So also are many of the other literal or figurative 'farewell blows', in popular and other literature, completing blows that bring at least a partial triumph or success. Aside from the obvious, wherein a half-literal 'farewell blow' is a literal blow that finishes a conflict with the triumph or success of the thing or person inflicting the blow — the same underlying sense of 'triumph or success in completion' found in many early uses of '[to a] fare-you-well', as well as in the later culinary sense of 'done to a fare-you-well' used with the meaning of 'done to perfection' — the context of figurative uses of 'farewell blow' usually connotes "the completing or perfecting action".

She seemed to feel that ruin was approaching, and to meditate the most certain course of striking a farewell blow, of deadly rancour, to the heart of her adversary.

An Old Family Legend, James Norris Brewster, 1811.

He shall lift up his heel; this being the most distant part of the body, represents the last stroke which Judas was then meditating to inflict upon him at parting, as a farewell blow, which was no less than to to deliver him into the hands of his enemies.

The Life, Doctrine, and Sufferings of our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Henry Rutter, 1845?.

We saw one poor fellow who had lost his pole in giving a farewell blow to the remnant [of an effigy of Judas Iscariot] when it was dragged from the shore; and who, while returning up the shingly beach, happened upon a small piece of board that had formed part of it. "What," he exclaimed, "you accursed dog, are you still following me? Wait a bit," and sitting down, he placed the board before him, and with a couple of stones patiently battered it to pieces.

Sixteen Years of an Artist's Life, 1859 (London).

...and Bush gave Dodge a farewell blow with the billy, which may have been meant for a fatal one, as it was accompanied with the remark that "dead men tell no tales."

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 05 Oct 1863 (paywalled).

Hot words, in sooth, Messrs. McCallu, but not less spicy are those with which you deal your farewell blows to poor Pinkerton: "In his nauseous tract we decline to follow, for even here victory were disgrace, and the laurels like those acquired in wrestling with a chimney sweep."

The Irish Builder (Dublin, Ireland), 01 Oct 1879 (paywalled).

In all of these (and other) uses of the standard phrase 'farewell blow', that phrase may be replaced without loss of meaning with the colloquial 'fare-you-well'.

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Early uses of the phrase "to a fare-thee-well" and its earlier variant "to a fare-you-well" found in newspaper archives provide a possible theory: that the expression first meant besting someone by a lot, as in until they have to say farewell, and from there drifted to simply mean doing something a lot or to the extreme.

Early uses of "fare-thee-well" in this sense are sports related. The earliest I found is from 1899 and can be understood as an extension of the literal meaning, "farewell."

Hughey, one of the leading twirlers of the Browns in '98, pitched for the "Exiles" and was batted to a "fare thee well." The St. Louis batsmen made a total of 20 hits of his delivery.

If variations of "X was [Verb]ed to a 'fare-thee-well,'" where "X" is defeated or overwhelmed severely, were the form in which the phrase grew into popularity, it would provide an explanation for how it came to mean "to the max," as batting or pitching someone "to a fare-thee-well" presumably means they were beaten "hugely."

The earliest "fare-you-well" in the same sense that I found was only slightly older, from 1893, and seems to lend support for the notion that the phrase originally meant besting someone by a large degree, this time in gambling / horse-racing.

For some time there has been talk of a race with "Ben Harrison" against the so-called world beater, "Lizzie Norton," and all on account of the backers of the mare making a $300 crack that she could beat "Ben" to the half. This bluff was called to a fare-you-well, and word was sent back they would take the bet and any more they might want to come in with.

In this case, "to a fare-you-well" would probably not work if readers were not already familiar with the expression, as it does not carry quite the literal meaning the baseball citation does. Still, these early citations that imply besting someone to the extreme [such that they figuratively or literally are forced to leave] appear similar to the sense "doing something to the extreme," and could possibly explain the origin of the sense.

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How did “fare-thee-well” come to mean “perfectly well”?

It is explained by the change in usage of the phrase. Originally, its usage was verbal: meaning to bid or wish someone to have success in some venture, in the form of a polite command.

  • fare: verb to journey or to be
  • thee: 2nd person singular pronoun
  • well: used as an adverb, meaning overflowing with abundance

In modern English one might say, "Have a good day" or "Enjoy your vacation".

However, its modern usage is usually that of a noun within a compound modifier functioning as an adverb.

So when saying for example, "played the part to a fare-thee-well", one is actually applying a compound modifier, "to a fare-thee-well", functioning as an adverb to the verb "played".

  • to: preposition, meaning toward
  • a: indefinite article introducing a noun
  • fare-thee-well: used in this phrase as a noun

So in conclusion, the phrase, "fare thee well", which stood alone in its original usage, somehow acquired (through changes in usage) some 'window dressing' (consisting of additional words functioning as noun modifiers, plus the hyphens making it a compound word functioning as the noun being modified) -- to became part of a modern idiom with completely different meaning.

An idiom within an idiom.

As to how that happened, I would surmise that some fairly influential author really liked the sound of the original phrase, desiring to use it, but realizing it was too archaic to use with its original meaning, decided to modify it for use as a colorful adverb. Their audience enjoyed it so much, it was repeated until it gained common usage.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, I just ran across this similar usage of "fare" in ca 1898 UK rural dialect, meaning "completely". "Ah's fare worn oot." "Ah's fare doon weary o' thi bodder."

Lakeland Words a collection of dialect words and phrases as used in Cumberland and Westmorland, with illustrative sentences in the North Westmorland dialect by B[ryham] Kirkby, c1898, page 50, with a preface by Professor Joseph Wright of Oxford University.

https://archive.org/details/cu31924103992735

  • If a “fairly influential author” did use it as a colorful adverb then we ought to find that usage in a well-known book by that author and we ought to see usage begin to take off after that book was published. Can you find this kind of evidence and cite it here? – Jim Dec 31 '17 at 18:25
  • Thank you. According to etymonline, "[fare well]: Expression to a fare-thee-well "to the last degree" is by 1884, American English." So, it may have been someone who was fairly influential at the time, whose creative use of language somehow overshadowed their personal fame. But if I happen to run across the originator of the idiom, you bet I'll try to let everyone know. I have a couple of leads I would like to explore. – Bread Dec 31 '17 at 19:06
  • archive.org/details/isleofbeautyfare00whit Here is a charming example of the former usage, dating to the 19th C prior to 1884 (ca1830s). Sheet music for a song called "Isle of Beauty, Fare Thee Well!" by Charles Shapland Whitmore (UK), found in the Boston Public Library. So this shows that the phrase in its old usage was familiar to the general American population, prior to its modification. – Bread Dec 31 '17 at 19:20
  • @ That's interesting, especially since the usage of the phrase in that passage, while a lively play on words, has a slightly different meaning. It uses the word "fare" in the context of food, and barely resembles the use of it as meaning "to the utmost degree", which apparently uses the word "fare" in the traditional context, while employing it within the modified usage. It seems that one usage is a pun on the other, while it is difficult at this point to know which came first. There is of course the possibility that the two modern variations were coincidental, which is even more interesting. – Bread Dec 31 '17 at 19:37
  • "To X" and "To a X" differ significantly in syntax, in that "To X" is verbal, while "To a X" is adverbial. But it is certainly possible that the change in usage originated with Cable's pun, then further evolved or mutated into the adverbial modern usage. Funny that a pun might instigate such a radical change of usage, if that's the case. – Bread Dec 31 '17 at 19:47

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