Dear at a penny

Posted by R. Berg on February 01, 2002

In Reply to: What one does need, is dear a penny posted by Bruce Kahl on February 01, 2002

: : : : Hi everybody!
: : : : Pleased to meet you. I'm a Spanish free-lance translator and I'm just happy that I've found you ;-)
: : : : I hope you can help me with this sentence:
: : : : "Nothing is cheap which is superfluous, for what one does need, is dear at a penny".
: : : : I think I've understood its meaning (perhaps: superfluous things are always expensive; necessary things are not). But I wonder if it is a phrase used in specific situations and even if I have undestood it correctly.
: : : : Thanks in advance.
: : : : MARTA

: : : Dear Marta,

: : : I have a different understanding of the phrase. I think it means that nothing that isn't a necessity is can be considered cheap because what one absolutely needs is expensive.

: : : Imagine an unemployed person offered an ridiculously cheap price for a trip to Spain. Unfortunately because this person can barely pay for the necessities, so it doesn't matter how inexpensive the trip is, it can't be considered cheap.

: : : 'Dear' is used here in the sense of expensive.

: : : I haven't heard the phrase used before. Where did you find it?

: : I haven't heard this phrase either. The first part is easy to understand. If you buy something useless at a reduced price,(like a ship in the desert), it's not really a savings. You've wasted your money.

: : I'm having trouble with the second part. If you really need something (like a heart transplant) it is cheap at any price. But "what one does need, is dear at a penny" doesn't say that to me. One of the meanings of "dear" is "expensive." ("Dictionary of Word Origins: the Histories of More Than 8,000 English-Language Words" by John Ayto; Arcade Publishing, New York, 1990). Something you really, really need wouldn't be expensive at a penny.

: : R. Berg? Can you clear this up. I've muddied it enough.

: "Nothing is cheap that is superfluous,
: for what one does not need is dear at a penny."
: Mestrius Plutarchus a.k.a Plutarch (circa 45 - 125 A.D.)

: Another famous person said almost the same thing but in a different way:
: "Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing."
: -- Albert Einstein

Aha! Thanks to Bruce for finding the original. We were all having trouble making sense of the English sentence because it's illogical, and I had just begun to wonder whether Marta was trying to translate something from a book where the editor and proofreader had slipped up and a "not" was omitted: "what one does not need is dear . . . "