In a recent blog posting for Code Switch, a website examing race, ethnicity and culture, NPR editor and producer Camila Domonoske ponders the word "fair," from its Anglo-Saxon roots as "beautiful" to its modern usage meaning "light-skinned."
Domonoske begins with a fairy tale, Snow White, where the evil stepmother asks her enchanted mirror to identify the "fairest of them all," but did she mean beautiful or blonde?
The conflation of beauty and paleness hardly came out of nowhere. Petrarch's Laura, the archetypal object of love poetry, was golden-haired. The idealized beauties of Renaissance paintings were alabaster-skinned (though the presence of people of color in medieval and Renaissance art shouldn't be ignored). And when Elizabethan women wore skin-lightening makeup, they were following a tradition hearkening back to the Roman era.
Having one word that means both beautiful and pale makes a pretty obvious statement about Western beauty standards. But the meaning of "fair" goes even further – mixing goodness in as well. Essayist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano points out that at the same time "fair" was transitioning from beautiful to pale, it also came to carry more positive moral overtones – and "black" gained the meaning "dark purposes."