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Word of the Week: ‘fringe’


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘fringe’.

Here at Speak Towers August means three things: sun’s out (ish), the commute into Shoreditch High Street is a little quieter – and our Instagram feeds are jam-packed with Edinburgh photos from smug friends enjoying the festival.

As the legendary Fringe gets underway, with prize-winning vegetable gags and cheese puns galore, we dust off our dictionaries to get to the bottom of the question on everyone’s lips: where did the term ‘fringe’ come from?

Warning: content may cause flashbacks to a 2007 botched attempt at a ‘new look’. 

What does ‘fringe’ mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary’s top entry for ‘fringe’ defines it as: “the outer or less important part of an area, group or activity.” 

‘Fringe’ in this more figurative sense is often used in politics to describe groups or individuals with views and lifestyles at extreme ends of the spectrum – or outside of the mainstream.

Another definition is the more sartorial “a decorative edge of hanging narrow strips of material or threads on a piece of clothing.”

Of course, then there’s the meaning related to your mop… “an area of hair hanging over the forehead that is cut shorter than the rest of the hair – chiefly British.” For our US readers, you may know it as ‘bangs’, taken from a ‘bangtail’ which is a horse tail trimmed horizontally.

Handily, the Urban Dictionary simultaneously provides us with a slick definition of ‘fringe’ and some first-class pub quiz fodder:

“A fringe is the goofy short bit of hair that comes down to your eyebrows. Also known as “bangs”. The Beatles started it apparently. One of them had a German girlfriend, and she cut their hair with a pudding bowl and the rest is history.”

 History of the word ‘fringe’

The word ‘fringe’ – and indeed the hairstyle itself – has a long history. 

First used in early 14th century Middle English, the word ‘fringe’ (then ‘frenge’) referred to strictly “ornamental bordering” – but it evolved into the more figurative sense of the “outer edge, or margin” by the 19th century.

The fringe as a hairstyle can be traced back as far as Ancient Egyptian times – and was rocked by rulers such as Cleopatra. One can only wonder if she used the pudding bowl.

‘Fringe’ theatre

So, how did the word ‘fringe’ come to be associated with one of the world’s most renowned arts festivals?

The festival itself was established in 1947, but the title ‘the fringe’ wasn’t adopted until a year later. Coined by Scottish playwright Robert Kemp, he described the festival as being “round the fringe of official festival drama”. 

This might refer to the two defining features of the festival in its conception – the lack of official invitation to perform and the use of unconventional venue. Indeed, the term ‘fringe theatre’ came into use later in the 1950s and was largely known for being experimental and whacky in style and subject. 

And there we have it. ‘Fringe’. Good enough for The Beatles and Cleopatra, good enough for the language lovers at Speak.

Roisin McCormack