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A Semantic History of the Word: Cheap

Origin of the word
Origin of the word cheap: The Free Dictionary states: “From Middle English (god) chep, (good) price, purchase, bargain, from Old English cēap, trade, from Latin caupō, shopkeeper.”.

Meanings of the word
The Oxford Dictionary offers several meanings of the word cheap. The four key ones are: “low in price”, “charging low prices”, “inexpensive because of poor quality”, “of little worth because achieved in a discreditable way” and “miserly”. The word cheap can also be used in the following contexts: Describing “people of questionable character”, “something that is achieved with little effort” or “something that is considered of small value”. Let us now take a short overview of each of these meanings.

  • Low in Price
    A statement where the word cheap is said with this meaning could go something like the following: “The milk was so cheap because it was past it’s best before date”. This use of the word is referring to a specific product.
  • Charging Low Prices
    The word cheap could be used in this context in the following statement: “That is the cheapest supermarket in the city”, or equally, “They have very cheap prices at that supermarket”. This use of the word refers to a company selling product, or generally, to the product that a specific shop sells.
  • Inexpensive Because of Poor Quality
    In this context, the word cheap could be used in the following statement: “The stuff they sell at that shop is just so cheap – I wouldn’t buy it”, or consider the following statement which also uses this context of the word, “Don’t buy that cheap stuff – you get what you pay for”. This time the word cheap is being used to explain that the reason a product is so cheap is because it is of poor quality or workmanship. The commonly used saying “cheap and nasty” is often used to refer to products imported from a Third World Country which are of terrible quality and very cheap – often undercutting higher quality goods.
  • Miserly
    The miserly, heartless character of Ebeneezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, could be summed up in one word; cheap. Synonyms for this use of the word could be: “tight-fisted” or “mean”.
  • People of Questionable Character
    This use of the word is most commonly applied to women who are either prostitutes, or act or dress in a way that suggests that they are either a bit free and easy or down-right promiscuous. The word cheap in this context could be used in the following statements: “Don’t wear that skirt, it makes you look cheap”, or, “look at her, she’s cheap”.
  • Something that is Achieved with Little Effort
    This use of the word cheap is used in situations where one wants to convey the low price that was paid for a success. For instance, it could be used in the following statement: “it was a cheap victory”. This would mean that a victory had been won, but it was not worth being excited about because it had come about either through devious means, or it was almost impossible for failure to have occurred.
  • Something that is Considered of Small Value
    Finally, we can use the word cheap simply to refer to the low value of an item. It could be used in the following statement: “In World War II, life was cheap in the ranks of the Russian army.” The word cheap is really only used in this context to refer to the value placed on a human life by others – usually those higher up the social ladder.

We see that the word cheap is just one of many in the English language which has more than one meaning, although in this case, all of the meanings are based around one concept. By way of contrast, the word mount can mean “mountain” or, “to sit on the back of a horse”.

Having covered the various uses and meanings of the word cheap, let us now examine the word’s use in everyday English.

Sayings
The word features in several idioms (sayings) such as “cheap as chips” (using potato-chips as a reference point of cheapness), “cheap and nasty” (low quality is the reason for the low price), “on the cheap” (used to describe the manner in which something was made; no unnecessary expenses were incurred), “cheap as they come” (used to refer to someone – especially a miser) and “cheap for twice the price” (even if the product was twice the price, it would still be a good buy).

Cheap as a Pun
An example of the word cheap being used as a pun is Canary Furniture’s tagline which is “Canary Furniture is cheep cheep cheaper”. They are making a play on words, using the sound of a Canary to describe the low price of their products.

Cheap in Pop Culture
Poor Old Lu refers to the word cheap in their 1995 song “Speak Soft”.

Jerry had some beers and started to weep
it's timeto turn away, it's his time to sleep
don't trouble yourself with seeking peace, go cheap

Lead singer Scott Hunter commented “I pray that the last two lines especially would be smelling salts for all of us in the paths that we choose – ‘don't trouble yourself with seeking peace. go cheap...’”. The word cheap is used in pop culture with the same meaning used here, to refer to the fact that we often don’t do things with enough care.

Cheap in Advertising
Many times every day as we watch television, listen to the radio, or drive down the road in our car, we are confronted with adverts from companies which make good use of the word cheap. Phrases such as “Cheapest prices in town” and “If you find a cheaper price we’ll beat it by 10%” are common-place. It is also occasionally used in pun form – for instance, “prices cheaper than your miserly uncle”.

Conclusion
Cheap is a versatile word that is used very frequently in everyday English.

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