At the Wording Desk
Increase your understanding of English by learning the background of our common adjective "cheap"
Our English adjective cheap ‘meaning inexpensive or of low quality began as an Old English noun céap that meant ‘market goods, bargain goods, buying and selling, merchandise.’ First in English it was part of an adjectival phrase ‘good cheap’ or ‘at good cheap’ One could say: Those clothes are good cheap, better cheap or best cheap, that is, they were low-priced or a good bargain. Eventually the “good” was dropped and the noun cheap became a simple adjective.
In English place names like London’s Cheapside literally ‘market side,’ a district near a market. In the Middle ages, Cheapside was a London street that began at one corner of St. Paul’s Cathedral and hosted the city’s largest market. Some side streets running off Cheapside to this day remind the visitor of which commodities were sold there, for example Milk Street, Honey Lane, Bread Street and Poultry Street. The market road’s original name was Westcheap and the then location of another market was called Eastcheap, still a London place name.
Germanic cognates include the modern German kaufen ‘to buy,’ with older more general verb meanings ‘to operate a shop, to do business.’ The German agent noun and surname is widespread too: Kaufmann ‘trader, merchant, businessman,’ as is Käufer ‘purchaser.’ Kaufmann had its equivalent in older, now obsolete English as chapman ‘buyer and seller of ordinary goods, merchant, dealer.’ Some of the Old and Middle English spellings were céapemann, cepemann, cypemann, cypemann, chepmon, cæpmon and chepman. It is the source of the still current occupational English surname, Chapman.
One of the earliest, prehistoric Germanic borrowings into Old Latin gave the common ancient Roman word for innkeeper, shopkeeper or stall-owner: caupo, cauponis. Caupo could also name a conniving huckster. Ancient Greeks called a lower-class tradesman κάπηλος kapelos. It was a common word for petty retailer, junk-dealer, knave, trickster, rogue, serving the same semantic function as its Latin cognate caupo. Dutch still has koop. Old-Norse-speaking Vikings called a bargain a kaup.
As a pejorative adjective, cheap is shopworn by incessant use. But so bountiful is the bowl of juicy English synonyms (for cheap in all its meanings) that we ought to use them more often. Think of: catchpenny, tawdry, shoddy, meretricious, vile, mangy, grody, squalid, rinky-dink, tatty and sub-par. If we are going to use the rich word hoard of scorn to vilipend all that is second-rate in life, we should rise above the use of the overused word cheap.
The concept of cheap in its meaning of stingy or tight-fisted inspires a plethora of folk sayings and I offer a few from my collection for your especial folkloric divertissement.
1. “My parents were so cheap that as kids we never had any decorations for the Christmas tree - - - unless Grandpa sneezed.”
2. He was so tight, you couldn’t drive a flax seed up his ass with a mallet.
3. He’s tighter than a crofter’s lease.
This bitter line, almost always uttered in full earnest, was brought to Canada from the Scottish Highlands in the days of skinflint lairds and massive eviction of crofters, when it proved more profitable to raise sheep than to let human beings eke out a miserable subsistence, all for the convenience of absentee landlords lolling in sybaritic luxury in London’s Sloane Square.
4. They’re so cheap, they wouldn’t boil shit to feed a tramp.
This unpleasant verdict arose in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
To conclude our cheap note on a positive aspect, let us recall an old English nursery rhyme about animal husbandry:
"To market, to market, to buy a fat pig!
Home with it! home with it! jiggety jig!
Stuff it till Christmas and make a fat hog,
Then at Smithfield Show win a prize, jiggety jog!"
Bill Casselman, February 02, 2017
Text Copyright 2017 William Gordon Casselman