Cheap at half the price
Of uncertain meaning - see below.
Before we start on this phrase permit me to leap astride my favourite hobby horse for a while. Cheap prices - arghh, no! Price is a numerical measure and, as such, can be high or low but it can't be cheap, any more than it can be green, or hirsute, or pro-communist. Likewise, the phrase that can be heard in most weather forecasts - hot temperatures. No, again; temperature can be high or low, but it can't be hot. Then there's ' fast speeds' and... okay, I'll get off now; let us proceed.
'Cheap at half the price' has joined the list of English phrases that don't convey any useful literal meaning, but which are used in their entirety rather than by being reflected on word by word. Other examples that make little literal sense are 'put your best foot forward', 'head over heels' and, more recently, 'I could care less'.
Those like myself, 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. I've seen all the positions listed below argued in Phrasefinder Bulletin Board discussions:
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.
'Cheap at half the price' is typical of the street cries of barrow boys. Many of these make no strict sense and stem from the same kind of linguistic exuberance and humour that brought us Cockney rhyming slang. Another theme in barrow boys' calls is the attempt to mislead or at least distract the public and draw their attention away from whatever mild scam the traders might be engaged in. In this way they aren't a million miles away from street magicians who used to use terms like hocus pocus as part of their distraction technique; for example, there's a street cry from the 1940s - 'apples a pound pears'. This makes no sense whatsoever, but sounds as though it ought to. Likewise with 'cheap at half the price'. In the hustle and bustle of a street market it sounds as though the customer is getting a bargain. Given the time to think the phrase through (and who bothers to anyway other than poor sufferers like me?), it is clear that no promise of value for money was made.
In a more recent context we now get adverts that offer 'up to 50% or more' of something or other. This makes no sense either, as every quantity is up to 50% or more, thus making it ideal for advertisers - copy that attracts the punters without actually making any explicit promise.
'Cheap at half the price' is by no means recent. Here's an example from The Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel, October 1871:
"A New Foundland dog recently sold in this city for $75. He was cheap at half the price."
As an example of the confusion this term causes we couldn't do better. Did they intend us to think the dog was inexpensive at $75 or that it would have been had it been sold for $37.50?
If I ever open a pet shop I can guarantee a literalist two-for-one offer on budgies- 'cheep at half the price'.