Q From Martin Taylor and Stephen Flannery, both from the UK: The phrase cheap at half the price has always left me wondering as to its meaning and derivation. Can you help please?
A On the face of it, the saying is self-evidently true, since if you buy a thing at half the price it’s going to be cheaper than paying full whack. But it’s one of those sayings that cause people to think it over and then shake their heads in bemusement. It seems from digging around that a lot of people are puzzled by it.
I was sure there was a single obvious meaning for it until I looked into Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, as revised by Paul Beale. If something is cheap at half the price, it is argued there, then the price being asked must be reasonable, fair value. A glossary of Australian slang online gives much the same explanation, saying that it is “an expression of satisfaction over the cost of something”. Other sites online that use the phrase also seem to think it refers to a good thing.
I don’t. I was sure before I started investigating (still am, come to that) that it’s a deliberate and humorous inversion of an old street trader’s cry. He might shout “cheap at twice the price”, so informing prospective customers that something he was selling was incredibly cheap and extremely good value. If it were cheap at half the price, on the other hand, it suggests that the price actually being charged is excessive. That was certainly the way my late father used it — to him, it was a sarcastic and dismissive comment on an item that was over-priced. “Wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole,” he might well have added. I find to my relief that my view equates exactly with that of the late Kingsley Amis, who wrote about it in the Observer in 1977 and who said firmly that it meant something was “bloody expensive”. The online Notes and Queries column of the Guardian newspaper has two replies by British readers to just this question and they also agree with me (or I with them, or all of us with Sir Kingsley).
The entry in A Dictionary of Catch Phrases remarks rather sadly, having gone into the matter, that this is a question that must be settled by leaving it unsettled. I disagree. However, as it stands it’s most certainly thoroughly confusing to anyone who might stumble across it. My guess is that, once the phrase moved away from its London street-trader roots, it became less easy to understand, and people who have tried to analyse it have come up with exactly the wrong idea. As a result, it’s best avoided unless you spell out exactly what you mean by it, but of course if you do that it loses most of its force.