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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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4 Answers 4

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
4  
I presume it is elliptic for "At what price?", which is grammatically normal. –  Colin Fine Feb 21 '11 at 12:53

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

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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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 11 '11 at 3:22

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