I've come across phrases like "What price freedom?" a lot. I speak British English and it doesn't read nicely to me. It seems some words are missing. Does it mean "What is the price of X?"? Where did this phrase originate from and why is it used in this way?
Various dictionaries have different things to say.
(New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd edition, from OS X)
Apart from Collins's strange definition, it seems that the general meaning of "what price X?" is "what's the value of X?" (not "what's the price of X", in the modern sense of price).
As for how it came to be, my wild speculation of the day is that it could have been used grammatically in an anaphoric expression, eg What price is freedom to us if we tolerate this tyranny? What price justice? etc.
The New Oxford American Dictionary says:
Unfortunately, it doesn't give an origin for this specific expression.
it's a misattribution to Thomas Jefferson but the earliest quote that probably has that comment is from Philpot Curran in his speech on Right of Election in 1790 (published in a book titled "Speeches on the late very interesting State trials" in 1808)".:
The sense is that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance".
It could also be a reference to a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche
One possibility is that the phrase gained traction as being a very concise, and yet grammatically valid sentence. Consider the following exchange:
The phrase "What strength medicine?" is grammatically valid, and is being used to enquire about how strong the medicine. In the same way, one could technically see the phrase "What price freedom?" as a grammatically valid sentence.
That said, in this form, the noun (medicine/freedom) being referred to should already have been mentioned. There should also be more than one instance of it, such that it can have different strengths/prices/etc. As 'freedom' is generally considered an abstract concept and there aren't multiple 'freedoms', and given that this construction is frequently used as an article heading or something, it looks much more like it's being used as a lazy way to say "What is the price of freedom?"
Why this has taken root I have no idea, and would be interested in knowing who started it. It always grates on me and I don't see why people seem to find it natural to elide various words in this instance in order to shorten the sentence at the expense of valid grammar.
The aim of this post is to at least attempt to explain and answer, in part, the OP's second question. Namely:
of the catch phrase or idiom is somewhat disputed
In The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: J-Z; its author, Eric Partridge, claims:
However, according to The Yale Literary Magazine (1925) it all began with the 1924 Broadway comedy-drama play, What Price Glory?, which was made into a silent movie two years later.
Source: Google Books
The Broadway play and film were both a huge success; it permitted one of its authors, Maxwell Anderson, to leave teaching and journalism in order to begin a long and successful career as a professional playwright. In fact, if one looks at the biographies of the two playwrights it becomes clear where the inspiration for the play title came from.
Because it is recognized as being an idiom,
Therefore one could consider the idiomatic phrase What price freedom? to convey a literal, figurative and metaphorical meaning. Or more simply, regard it as a figure of speech, which Wikipedia defines
The above phrases can be summarised by the Cambridge Dictionaries' definition: something that you say which means it is possible that the fame, success etc. that has been achieved was not worth all the suffering it has caused.
Google Books shows how the formula What price + noun has been used (with some curious choice of expressions) in the American English corpus since the 1920s
protected by RegDwigнt♦ Dec 11 '11 at 3:22
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