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I hear this all the time, "cheap at half the price", to indicate that something is cheap (mostly in an ironic sense, but often used literally), but it makes no sense to me.

Of course, if something was half the price it could probably be considered cheap, especially when compared to its actual price. But it is not half the price, it is the price it is.

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I agree: I've always found the expression mistifying, since it is used where I would expect "cheap [even if it were] at twice the price". In my mind I bracket it with "breathe in!" which people use to mean "there is very little space for people", but which would more logically be "breathe out!". –  Colin Fine May 5 '11 at 12:20
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I think you accepted the wrong answer. You can and probably should change your accept. –  Erik B May 5 '11 at 15:49
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"Cheap at twice the price" is the term I'm familiar with, and makes perfect sense. –  Jonathan Wood May 5 '11 at 17:59
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11 Answers 11

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There has been a saying in American English: "Cheap at twice the price." This has traditionally been used to indicate that something is a great bargain.

"Cheap at half the price" is a humorous reversal of this statement. It is used to express contempt for the quality or price of an item, or both.

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Except that it appears that at some point, people started using cheap at half the price to also mean a great bargain, leading to some confusion. –  Peter Shor May 5 '11 at 13:59
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@Peter Shor: I think this probably follows the same pattern as "I couldn't care less" => "I could care less." –  Robusto May 5 '11 at 14:16
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'I could care less' — Aargh! –  Karl May 5 '11 at 14:25
    
@Karl I share your sentiments. atwitsendcomics.com/comics/index/3/Irregardless –  Jack B Nimble May 5 '11 at 21:11
    
I think people just wanted to convey that it was cheap, had a meaningful construct "cheap at twice the price" but thought (not too hard) that they wanted to convey that the price was low, and so 'fixed' it without realizing that the logic of the phrase reversed the meaning. Like "I could care less". They care very little, so it should affirm "less", not negate it. –  David Schwartz Aug 26 '11 at 12:51
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From http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cheap-at-half-the%20-price.html:

Those, who suffer from literalism, faced with an item offered at half the usual price would expect it to be cheap - what isn't cheap if you halve its price? 'Cheap at twice the price', now there is a bargain.

The interpretation of this phrase has caused some debate.

(in Phrasefinder Bulletin Board):

  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.
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Please format verbatim quotes as such (simply putting a link at the end is misleading) and edit them for brevity (quoting entire articles is no longer Fair Use). –  RegDwigнt May 5 '11 at 13:45
    
To be clear: please fix up this answer so it doesn't have to be deleted. –  Kosmonaut May 5 '11 at 13:51
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@zizi: you quote something like 50% of the article - 15 of 33 lines. That's really borderline for "fair use". I've edited it to at least make it obvious that these are not your own words. –  Marthaª May 5 '11 at 14:06
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@zizi: your original answer quoted even more of the article, but did not in any way, shape, or form, indicate that these were not your own words. Putting "ref. ..." at the end is a way to indicate sources of original research, not a way to say "oh, yeah, by the way, I didn't actually write any of the above, I just stole it from this site". –  Marthaª May 5 '11 at 14:14
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Don't take this personally, zizi. It's not against you, it's for standards. Your contributions are as welcome as anybody else's, as long as you follow a few simple rules everybody else has to follow, too. Cheer up! –  RegDwigнt May 5 '11 at 18:02
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I have always assumed that it was short for "It would be cheap at half the price." Of course, this doesn't make any sense literally. But it could have started out being used ironically, as a twist on cheap at twice the price, and at some point the meaning was reversed. A Google Ngram doesn't tell us much.

Google Ngram

Cheap at twice the price has been around since 1853.

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Interesting that they both peaked in the 40's. –  Mild Fuzz Dec 1 '11 at 10:10
    
In the late 60s I knew a guy in his 30s who quite often said "Yeah - cheap at half the price" after mentioning how much he's paid for something. He definitely always meant that he thought he'd paid more than he should have. I don't know if it was "naval slang", but he had been a merchant seaman, and that's where he'd picked up a lot of his quirky turns of phrase. –  FumbleFingers Mar 20 '12 at 22:57
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It sounds like it's used ironically.

The iPad is cheap at half the price

Meaning that the item isn't cheap at all, but it would be if it were half the price.

But, apparently there is some deep-rooted debate going on about this.

Phrases.org lists the same explanation I do, along with some background and other interpretations.

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The link is broken. –  Nate Eldredge Apr 16 '13 at 17:35
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"Cheap at half the price," is the original and correct form of the saying. The "cheap" does not refer to the price of an item. Rather it refers to the items themselves. In Middle English cheap or "cheep" also meant goods or property. Chaucer used it in this sense in, "...greet cheep is holde at litel pris..." i.e. where there is an abundance ("great number of goods"), the price is less. Thus the street cry, "Cheap at half the price!" was the Middle Ages' version of today's, "All stock now 50% off" sign in a shop window. So you see, Cheap at half the price makes perfect sense after all!

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Although cheap did refer to a market in the middle ages (Cheap Street, EastCheap etc) the rest of your explanation is fantasy. –  user24964 Dec 11 '13 at 9:51
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I read it as "cheap [because it is] at half the price" in other words it is at half the price, which makes it cheap.

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This is just a bit of humour, "cheap at half the price" is taking the mick, it means it's not that cheap at all. We use it all the time, I just heard my colleague hear of something that was expensive, and he said "cheap at half the price" meaning it was a rip-off.

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"Taking the mick"? I'm not familiar with that turn of phrase. –  Marthaª Oct 26 '12 at 13:45
    
In the song "Who will buy?" from Oliver, the title character sings "It's cheap at half the price," and there's no sense of irony or belittling. –  gmcgath Apr 28 '13 at 15:33
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The phrase "cheap at half the price" is exactly what it says. The person that said it meant "that item is cheap and it's half the price as it should be". Another way of saying it is, "that's cheap and at half the price". The flip side to this is to say "that would be cheap at twice the price", in other words half price.

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It's a joke, purely and simply. It occurs in several humorous monologues and sketches, where it initially sounds like an endorsement until you think about it and then you realise that it means the opposite of what it sounds like. Therefore, those who say it is ironic are correct.

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Cheap is a corruption of the middle ages Cheep which meant goods.

Thus "Cheep at half the price" - Goods at 50% off, or similar.

Read your Chaucer.

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This origin disagrees –  Matt Эллен Oct 7 '13 at 14:57
    
According to the OED, Chaucer used chepe to mean abundance. There is no mention of the phrase "chepe at half the price". –  Matt Эллен Oct 7 '13 at 15:01
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The meaning is as in the saying—"cheap at half the price". That is, people around the 1930/40's would comment on the prices of goods being not such good value for money, "Yes, it would have been cheap if half of the price," and this was for the most basic of items.

This then was passed down to younger generations, who would quote their parents/grandparents complaining about the prices of goods; this was then spoken as ridicule/mocking of a past era.

Of the price of stockings after the war, for example: you could now almost show off and say "They would have been cheap at half the price, but I can still afford them."

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I find this very implausible, but am willing to be persuaded if you can provide corroborative citations for both periods. ... I have edited your answer to conform to minimal standards of orthography and punctuation. –  StoneyB Sep 15 '12 at 12:22
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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 11 '13 at 14:25

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