Has cheap had its chips?
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Peter Trudgill on a perfectly good word which may find its days numbered
The Dutch word for 'to buy' is kopen. The corresponding word in German is kaufen; and the West Frisian equivalent is keapje. All the Scandinavian languages also have a related form: Norwegian kjøpe, Danish købe, Swedish köpa, Icelandic kaupa, and Faroese keypa. So the word is found in all of the languages English is most closely related to – but it is strangely absent from English itself.
Why is it that English so mysteriously lacks this kopen word? In fact English did have such a word, for many centuries, until it was gradually replaced by buy. In Old English, the related verb-form was ceapian, 'to bargain, to buy'. And there were also a number of other Old English words which were derived from it, such as ceapmann, later chapman, meaning a merchant or trader. We have now lost this word too, except that it does survive as a surname. Dutch has a similar surname, Koopman, and German has Kaufmann.
Another related Old English word was ceping or cieping, which meant 'market town' – a place where one bargained for and bought things. There are still several places in England which have this element in their names: Chipping Ongar, Chipping Norton, Chipping Sodbury, Chipping Camden.
There are a number of similar place-names in other areas of the Germanic-speaking word, too, with the same origin. The Old Norse equivalent to cieping was kaupangr; and there was an important Viking Age trading town on the south coast of Norway which was called Kaupang.
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In modern Sweden there are towns called Linköping, Nyköping and Norrköping which contain this same element. And in Denmark we find Ringkøbing, Nykøbing, Rudkøbing and Sakskøbing. The Nordic word has also been borrowed into Finnish as kaupunki, where it signifies 'town'.
Back in this country, we can see the Old English verb cropping up in the name of Cheapside, which was the main shopping street in the old City of London, as well as in Eastcheap, also an ancient London commercial street. And the name of Chipstead in Kent comes from Old English ceap-stede, 'buying place'.
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By the Medieval English period, the verb ceapian had become chepen. In Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, we find 'For as a spanyel she wol on hym lepe, Til that she fynde som man hire to chepe' ('For like a spaniel she will leap on him, Until she finds some man to buy her'). Chepe(n) – 'to buy, bargain' – continued to be used in the 16th and early 17th centuries, but then it gradually died out.
Except that it did not really die out at all. The word survives today in the form of our modern adjective cheap. The way we use the word nowadays is actually comparatively recent, not becoming current until the 1500s. It was originally an abbreviation of the phrase good cheap, where cheap was a noun derived from chepen, meaning 'a bargain, commodity'. If something was 'good cheap', then that meant that it was a good bargain, that you got it at a good price.
So the ancient pan-Germanic word does survive in English, just not as a verb as it does in our sister languages. But we can now ask how long even the adjective is going to survive. It already seems that quite a lot of Americans don't like this word: it is noticeable that there is a strong tendency for many of them to prefer to say inexpensive rather than cheap.
What seems to be going on is that cheap has too many negative connotations in American English of the 'cheap-and-nasty' type for speakers to feel comfortable about using it in a neutral way, in the original sense 'of good value in proportion to its price'. And there are also other associated negative phrases such cheap trick and cheapskate which may in the end send the adjective cheap along the same road into linguistic oblivion that the verb to cheap has already travelled.
Ongar strikes many people as being a rather unusual name, and it does seem to be the only place-name in Britain with a name beginning with Ong-. Actually, though it is a perfectly good English-language name which is derived from the Old English word angr, which meant 'meadow' or 'grazing land'.