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What Does "All's Fair in Love and War" Mean?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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"All’s fair in love and war" is a popular English saying that notes that while there are many rules necessary in most settings, just about anything goes when it comes to war or the pursuit of love. The idea is that in those two situations, the normal rules for behavior are suspended and the participants may find themselves engaging in activities or strategies that would be considered inappropriate in other scenarios. Depending on the context of the usage, "all’s fair in love and war" may be used to justify actions that are questionable or as a means of freeing an individual to make creative use of resources at hand to achieve the desired goal.

When presented as a positive attribute, "all’s fair in love and war" usually focuses on the love aspect of the equation. Here, the concept may serve to motivate individuals to take chances that they normally would consider unacceptable in exchange for the possibility of winning the heart of the object of their affection. For example, an individual may use somewhat devious means to outmaneuver someone else who is also interested in the one who is adored, possibly by arranging for the competition to get sidetracked at a restaurant across town while the individual meets the adored one at a local park. While the competitor waits in frustration for the desired person to arrive, he or she is across town enjoying the company of the perpetrator.

At the same time, "all’s fair in love and war" can sometimes be used to excuse the utilization of methods and strategies that are somewhat questionable in any type of setting. This includes creating situations in which the lives or general well-being of another human being are put into peril, with no qualms of doing so if the action will produce the desired result. While employing a little trickery that produces no long-term ill effects is usually forgiven, situations in which malicious activities take place are often remembered for a long time, causing permanent damage to the perpetrator’s reputation.

Under the best of circumstances, employing the concept of all’s fair in love and war results in a happy union between two people that lasts for a number of years. At worst, this approach leads to taking actions that create negative feelings and harm to other people that is not soon forgotten. Within this context, it may be said that while all’s fair in love and war, not all strategies arising from the mindset have to be carried out.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By ddljohn — On Jul 19, 2012

@ysmina-- Yes, but that's kind of the point. It doesn't say "all is fair" for no reason. It means that you may do anything because in certain situations, you are not bound by the regular rules. The important thing is to win. How you win is not important.

Yea, "all is fair in war and love" has been around for a very long time. As far as I know, it has been traced all the way back to Greek literature. It was first used in English by a British author. But the first American author to use it in American literature was John Pendleton Kennedy. I think the literary piece he used this phrase in was called "Horse-Shoe Robinson" or something similar to that.

By ysmina — On Jul 18, 2012

@fify-- But don't you think that people use this phrase as an excuse or a justification for the wrong things they're doing?

We all know that when someone uses this phrase, they actually mean that it's okay to cheat. I don't like that at all. Whether it's love or war, people should compete fairly. Otherwise, how will the best man win?

By the way, does anyone know where "all's fair in love and war" originates from? Did it originate in British English or American English? It has been around for a long time right?

By fify — On Jul 17, 2012

I hear this phrase being used a lot in romantic films. And the situation is usually very similar to the kind of the situation the article described.

I think "all is fair in love and war" means that people have to get out of their comfort zone. If they are in a "war" of some kind- competition for love or something else, they have to take risks and do things they might not normally do. It's not that love always requires people to break the rules. But when you have a competitor who doesn't mind doing that, then you also have to put your principles aside and play the game their way in order to win.

In films, I've never seen anyone do anything more serious than lying or misleading someone. So even though people break rules, they don't do anything too extreme. I personally don't think that hurting someone physically or getting them fired from their job could ever be acceptable in any situation.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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