cheap at twice the price... or half the price?

Einstein

Senior Member
UK, English
There's an expression in BrE (maybe also in AmE, I don't know), Cheap at twice the price.

It means that the thing is so cheap that even if you doubled the price it would still be cheap. However, it's very common to hear also Cheap at half the price. This misses the point of the saying, but is understandable because half price is more easily associated with cheapness.
I'd just like to know who is familiar with which expression.

Google searches give:
Cheap at twice the price: 508
Cheap at half the price: 816
 
  • Bevj

    Allegra Moderata (Sp/Eng, Cat)
    English (U.K.)
    I am familiar with both.
    I agree that 'Cheap at half the price' misses the point of the saying and the correct version is 'Cheap at twice the price'.
    'Cheap at half the price' could be correct in some contexts but not with the same meaning.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    No one knows what it really means nor why it is said.
    Here are some theories:
    1. 'Cheap at half the price' is understood to mean 'reasonably priced' and if people understand that meaning why worry about logical niceties?
    2. It was never intended to be taken seriously and is a pun on the meaningful phrase 'cheap at twice the price', intended either humorously or in order to deceive.
    3. It is just an error made by people who meant to say 'cheap at twice the price' but didn't think hard enough about what they were saying. ...
    'Cheap at half the price' is by no means recent. Here's an example from The Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel, October 1871: "A New Foundland dog recently sold in this city for $75. He was cheap at half the price."
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cheap-at-half-the-price.html (The whole page is worth reading.)

    for what it is worth, I understand it as

    A: "I only paid £70 for these shoes - they were remarkably cheap!"
    B: "£70?!!! That's not cheap! They'd have been cheap at half-the price."
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    I suppose I've heard 'cheap at half the price' more often, but have always assumed it was used facetiously, by the sort of people who would.
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    No one knows what it really means nor why it is said.
    Here are some theories:http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cheap-at-half-the-price.html (The whole page is worth reading.) Yes, interesting!

    for what it is worth, I understand it as

    A: "I only paid £70 for these shoes - they were remarkably cheap!"
    B: "£70?!!! That's not cheap! They'd have been cheap at half-the price."
    That's how I understand it literally, but I don't think it's what people usually mean when they say it.
    I agree that "cheap at half the price" is typically said with a Cockney accent, like a barrow-boy trying to persuade you you're getting a bargain. It's like selling a used car, "rust free, one careful owner.":D

    P.S.
    1. 'Cheap at half the price' is understood to mean 'reasonably priced' and if people understand that meaning why worry about logical niceties?
    True, but what are language forums for???
     
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    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I'm pretty sure I don't say "cheap at twice the price" - "cheap at half the price", yes:).

    (There's a bit of discussion of the "half" version in this previous thread: cheap at the price.)
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I am only familiar with cheap at half the price. The price would be acceptable if it were half what it is. It is used jocularly of goods that are not of merchantable quality at all.
     
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    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    I'm familiar only with "cheap at twice the price". It's the only one that makes sense; it means that it's a bargain and even if the price were doubled, it would still be a bargain, since the item is clearly worth even more.
     

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm familiar only with "cheap at twice the price". It's the only one that makes sense; it means that it's a bargain and even if the price were doubled, it would still be a bargain, since the item is clearly worth even more.
    They both make sense to me and would be used in different circumstances.

    "cheap at half the price" means it's too expensive
    "cheap at twice the price" means it's a bargain.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    ...
    "cheap at half the price" means it's too expensive
    ...
    "Cheap at half the price" doesn't mean "it's too expensive" to me, Biffo: it means it's cheap.

    See this entry in the Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases, mentioned also in the thread I linked to in post 8:
    cheap at half the price (,it would be) it's very good value, a very reasonable price, said by the seller or the buyer. The phrase dates from the 1920s at the latest, perhaps from as early as 1890. It is one of those intensely idiomatic phrases that are taken for granted yet prove impossible to analyse or explain: the accepted interpretation would make more sense if twice were substituted for half. [...]
     
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    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I've always heard "cheap at half the price" said to mean the item is cheap, never that it's expensive. I explained in post #1 why I think this has come about. After all, we can say, logically, "It was cheap, it was sold at half price", so "cheap" and "half price" are closely associated in our minds. "Cheap at twice the price" takes a bit more thinking.

    What intrigues me, though, is
    It is one of those intensely idiomatic phrases that are taken for granted yet prove impossible to analyse or explain: the accepted interpretation would make more sense if twice were substituted for half. [...]
    The author seems to be completely unaware that the "twice" version does exist, and yet my Google search showed that it may be in the minority, but a respectable one.
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    The author seems to be completely unaware that the "twice" version does exist, and yet my Google search showed that it may be in the minority, but a respectable one.
    The author is, however, aware of the variant "cheap at double the price," since he quotes Kingsley Amis contrasting the first version with the second. Amis thinks that "cheap at half the price" is ironic and means "it's bloody expensive." However, in the longer version of Partridge's book, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, Partridge[1] makes clear that he does not agree with this take on the expression and ends the entry with "It seems that we must, in the words of the (genuine) old Chinese expression, 'settle the matter by leaving it unsettled'."

    [1]Some of this may have been written by Paul Beale, rather than Partridge, as both the longer and shorter versions were edited by Beale. However, Beale quotes Partridge directly as being of the opinion that "cheap at half the price" meant "good value."

    It is interesting to see the Google Ngrams for the three versions of the expression (half, double, twice), and how they differ in British, American, and mixed sources, using 1915 as the starting date.
     
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    susanna76

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    "Leaving the matter unsettled" sounds about right. Here's what I started with before reading this thread:

    Cheap at half the price! (British and Australian humorous) -- something that you say when something is very expensive (Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed., 2006)
    cheap at half the price (British informal) -- used for emphasizing that something is good value and not expensive (Macmillan Dictionary)

    I love all your explanations.:) The phrase is, indeed, rather ambiguous: is the item cheap because it's already half-priced, or would it be cheap if it were at half price? . . .
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Is 'cheap' in this saying really a reference to price? It may well be a reference to the quality of the item.
    In other words, this item is of such poor quality that even if it were half the price it would still be 'cheap': that is, too tawdry to be worth having.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Is 'cheap' in this saying really a reference to price? It may well be a reference to the quality of the item.
    In other words, this item is of such poor quality that even if it were half the price it would still be 'cheap': that is, too tawdry to be worth having.
    That's not what it means to me, wandle. "Cheap at half the price" is a (humorous) way of saying "inexpensive".
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    Is 'cheap' in this saying really a reference to price? It may well be a reference to the quality of the item.
    In other words, this item is of such poor quality that even if it were half the price it would still be 'cheap': that is, too tawdry to be worth having.
    Ingenious explanation to make the phrase make sense - but no, for me "cheap at half the price" just means "a good bargain". I don't use "cheap at twice the price", which I agree makes perfect sense. The lack of sense in "cheap at half the price" had never crossed my mind before it was pointed out to me (probably in these forums).
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    According to Michael Quinion, and his father, and Kingsley Amis, it means 'bloody expensive': 'wouldn't touch it with a bargepole'.

    MQ's theory on why it means that is that it started as a barrow-boy's cry 'cheap at twice the price' (meaning 'very good value') and that this was sarcastically converted into 'cheap at half the price' to mean 'ridiculously over-priced'.
     
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    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    According to Michael Quinion, and his father, and Kingsley Amis, it means 'bloody expensive': 'wouldn't touch it with a bargepole'.

    MQ's theory on why it means that is that it started as a barrow-boy's cry 'cheap at twice the price' (meaning 'very good value') and that this was converted into 'cheap at half the price' to mean 'ridiculously over-priced'.
    Interesting link. I must say that I agree with all those sources that he disagrees with - for me it's only ever meant "a good bargain". I can't really justify that beyond saying that without the potentially contradictory/humorous grammar being pointed out to me that is certainly how I've always used and interpreted it. It's possible that people have been saying the exact opposite to me and I've misinterpreted them, but I do doubt it.
     
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