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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?

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1  
A related question by me, asked in Nov 2014. –  CopperKettle Nov 16 at 17:02
    
As an aside, and because no one else has mentioned this useful terminology, this is a fixed phrase for what is known as a "a Pyrrhic victory". –  Dan Sheppard Nov 26 at 10:35

5 Answers 5

Various dictionaries have different things to say.

What price [fame/success/victory etc.]?

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

What price victory when so many people have died to make it possible?

(Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed.)

price [...]

what price (something)? what are the chances of (something) happening now?

(Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged)

What price something?

What is the value of something?; What good is something? (Said when the value of the thing referred to is being diminished or ignored.)

Jane's best friend told us all about Jane's personal problems. What price friendship? Jack simply declared himself president of the political society. What price democracy?

(McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs)

what price ——? used to ask what has become of something or to suggest that something has or would become worthless : what price justice if he were allowed to go free?

(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.

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I like the anaphoric experssion theory. Yes, that could well have happened. –  Jez Jul 8 '11 at 14:40

The New Oxford American Dictionary says:

what price ——? used to ask what has become of something or to suggest that something has or would become worthless: what price justice if he were allowed to go free?

Unfortunately, it doesn't give an origin for this specific expression.

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Thanks, the phrase really bugs me. –  tjrobinson Feb 21 '11 at 12:11
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I presume it is elliptic for "At what price?", which is grammatically normal. –  Colin Fine Feb 21 '11 at 12:53

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)".:

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

The sense is that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance".

It could also be a reference to a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you'll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."

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One possibility is that the phrase gained traction as being a very concise, and yet grammatically valid sentence. Consider the following exchange:

Tom: I bought some medicine for you, it should help.

Harry: What strength medicine?

Tom: Very strong; it's supposed to act fast.

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.

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The aim of this post is to at least attempt to explain and answer, in part, the OP's second question. Namely:

Where did this phrase originate from and why is it used in this way?


The origins

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:

what price...?
consider the worth of something!; what do you think of something?
UK. 1893
Occasionally admiring, but generally sarcastic, in reference to a declared or well-understood value

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.

"WHAT PRICE GLORY?", I suppose, started it and set the idiom. And then came the long string. . . What Price Popularity, What Price Athletic Commercialism, What Price Monogamy, What Price Mahogany Chairs, What Price What- and-what-not?

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.

Maxwell Anderson

He became the principal of a high school in Minnewaukan, North Dakota, also teaching English there, but was fired in 1913 for making pacifist statements to his students. [...] he became chairman of the English department at Whittier College in 1917. He was fired after a year for public statements supporting Arthur Camp, a jailed student seeking status as a conscientious objector. Anderson moved to Palo Alto to write for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, but was fired for writing an editorial stating that it would be impossible for Germany to pay off its war debt.

Laurence Stallings

[...] he joined the United States Marine Reserve himself in 1917. He was assigned to active duty and arrived in France in time to participate in the fighting at Château-Thierry, where he was wounded in the leg in the Battle of Belleau Wood. After begging the doctors not to amputate, he came home to spend two painful years recuperating (He later damaged it with a fall on the ice, and it was amputated in 1922.

Meaning

Because it is recognized as being an idiom, What price _NOUN__? does not have to comply with the semantic and grammatical rules of everyday English. The idiom in its entirety carries the meaning. Idioms are not meant to be deconstructed nor the order of their words changed. If you do so, you change their figurative meaning. Take for example the idiom rise and shine, although we can physically ‘rise’ from our beds, we cannot shine—that verb is used as a metaphor.

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

A figure of speech is figurative language in the form of a single word or phrase. It can be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words.

  • What price [is] freedom?
  • [At] what price [does] freedom [come]?
  • What [is the] price [we pay for] freedom?

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

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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 11 '11 at 3:22

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