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The meaning and origin of the expression: Cheapskate

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Cheapskate

What's the meaning of the word 'Cheapskate'?

A mean or despicable person.

Cheapskate is one of the numerous scornful terms for someone who has' short arms and long pockets', that is, someone who is reluctant to spend money or pay their fair share. They are otherwise known as misers, pikers, scrooges, skinflints, tight-wads or penny-pinchers.

What's the origin of the word 'Cheapskate'?

The source of the word CheapskateNo one knows the precise source of the word 'cheapskate' but we do know that it originated in the USA in the late 19th century.

A search through some early archives comes up with references to 'cheap skates' but these turn out to be simply adverts for inexpensive skating footwear, which clearly isn't the source of the word. It does coincide with the early spelling of 'cheapskate' though, which was originally as two words, that is 'cheap skate'.

Of course, we aren't going to get far into investigating 'cheapskate' without knowing what a 'skate' is. What it isn't is the aforementioned footwear, nor the flatfish, nor the Old English name for a worn-out horse.

More usefully for our purposes the OED lists 'skate' as a slang term for 'a mean or contemptible person'. This is clearly the skate we are looking for. 'Skate' and 'cheap skate' were used synonymously in both the USA and the UK around the turn of the 20th century.

An early citation can be found in Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town by George Ade, 1896:

"Them sporty boys don't last. They get in with a lot o' cheap skates and chase around at nights and think they're the real thing."

Ade was an American writer and other examples of 'cheap skate' appear in US newspapers for the same year - some years before the term is found in print elsewhere.

Why 'skate' was chosen as a term of scornful abuse directed at mean individuals isn't clear. It may have been a variant of the Scottish word 'skite' or 'skeet', which refers to a person who is regarded with contempt. This usage is now rare in the UK but is still used in Australia and New Zealand.

The US word 'blatherskite' refers to a person who talks interminable nonsense. 'Cheapskate' and 'blatherskite' (and, of course, it could just as easily have been 'cheapskite' and 'blatherskate') appear to have been formed in the same way and it seems likely that the Scots word was the source of 'cheapskate'.

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