Mirror, Mirror: Does 'Fairest' Mean Most Beautiful Or Most White? : Code Switch : NPR: Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?
We all recognize the mantra of Snow White's evil stepmother. But what, exactly, is she asking? In the Grimm Brothers' German original, she asks who's the most beautiful in the land. But in English, it's a little more complicated.
On the one hand, fair is an archaic word for beautiful. But in modern usage, it usually refers to a light complexion – and it's hard to forget that we're talking about a story where the main character's claim to fame is that her skin is extraordinarily pale.
Snow White isn't the only story where "beautiful" and "light-skinned" start to overlap. The title of My Fair Lady doesn't just quote a children's song — it also echoes the fact that in the original Pygmalion legend, the lady in question was carved from ivory (which is one of the very few ways to be even paler than Audrey
Hepburn.) And some of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets were directed to
a "Fair Youth": Was he blonde, or just handsome?