Posted by James Briggs on March 18, 2007
In Reply to: Going for a song posted by Smokey Stover on March 18, 2007
: : Does anyone know where the phrase 'going for a song' (meaning going cheap) comes from? I can't find the original meaning anywhere!
: : Many thanks
: : RT
: The original meaning? You mean, song as a mataphor for virtually nothing? It started when songs didn't cost anything, at least not to sing. That's all changed now, of course, and if the Disney company and some others have their way you'll have to pay a royalty on every B-flat that you sing. That's an exaggeration, but I think that the changing times have made this metaphor nearly obsolete. To find out how old the metaphor might be I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. song.
: "Used to denote a very small or trifling sum, amount, or value, or a thing of little worth or importance. Freq. an old (also a mere) song. a. In the phr. for a(n old) song, for a mere trifle, for little or nothing.
: (a) 1601 SHAKES. All's Well III. ii. 9, I know a man that had this tricke of melancholy hold a goodly Mannor for a song. a1639 W. WHATELY Prototypes II. xxvi. 25 To have so little esteem of the outward means of salvation, as to part with them for a song as we say. 1707 Reflex. upon Ridicule 262 He retrenches the Number of his Servants or their Wages, and would have them serve, as they say, for a Song. 1751 H. WALPOLE Lett. II. 395 The whole-length Vandykes went for a song! 1808 PIKE Sources Mississ. I. App. 10 You will perceive that we have obtained about 100000 acres for a song. 1865 DICKENS Mut. Fr. III. xvii, I assure you, the things were going for a song. 1890 JESSOPP Trials Co. Parson iv. 173 A brief report was published, and may be purchased now for a song."
The saying seems to have started off as 'All this for a song' and is the alleged angry response by Burleigh to Queen Elizabeth I when she instructed him to pay Edmund Spenser £100 for a performance of his "The Faerie Queen". The original inference is clearly different and opposite to present day usage.