Cheap at half the price
I was standing at the bar of a pub the other day and a man when told the cost of his drinks said, “That’s cheap at half the price”. It has always struck me as a rather odd phrase to use as a comment on the price of something. After all, something that was sold at half the price of what you had just been asked to pay would be cheap. A more logical idiom might be cheap at twice the price because if the goods were considered cheap then, a further 50% off would be an absolute steal.
Debating this with a friend of mine, he reminded me of the lesson in supply and demand economics in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, “Greet prees at market maketh deere ware/ and to greet cheep is holde at litel prys;/ this knoweth every woman that is wyse” (528 – 530). Cheep in this Chaucerian context refers to goods themselves rather than the pecuniary value attached to any item. So, as any economics student will confirm, a great supply of something leads to low prices.
It is hard not to think that our phrase owes its origin to a half-remembered quotation from Chaucer at a time when the original meaning of cheep was no longer current. The usage today is ambiguous. It can be used ironically or humorously to suggest that actually the price you have just paid is a tad on the high side or, alternatively, in a literal sense to convey that it is cheap and it is at half the price of what it should be.
At least we haven’t paid an arm and a leg which is used to denote an exorbitant price. A full complement of arms and legs is essential to performing our daily chores with relative ease. The willing sacrifice of one or more of our limbs is suggestive of how desirous we are to do or obtain something. Phrases like I would give my right arm for/to and even if it takes a leg originate from at least the 19th century.
In Sharpe’s London Journal of 1849 we find, “he felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy” and in an edition of the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye of 1875, “a man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it costs a leg”. Wonder if he was successful? The French have a phrase, ca coute les yeuxs de la tete, which echoes the same sentiment.
But costing an arm and a leg is a modern accretion, first appearing in print in 1949 in The Long Beach Independent, “who want to say Merry Christmas and not have it cost her an arm and a leg”. It is almost certainly an amalgam of the earlier giving an arm and taking a leg idioms.
Of course if you are stinking rich the cost of something might be academic. This again is a relatively modern phrase, first appearing in The Independent of Montana in 1925, ..”from New England – stinking rich”. Tempting as it may be to see the adjective stinking as some socialist comment on the rich it seems that its purpose is to be an intensifier, that is emphasising the degree of wealth rather than casting any opprobrium on the source or legitimacy of it.