Words are free, for which let us be glad: we may be both profligate and cheapskate, revelling in the embarrassing riches of our endless lexical pocket change while still having cash to spare for any occasion. How much does it cost to use words as lavishly as Meghan O’Rourke in “Sleep”:
Pawnbroker, scavenger, cheapskate,
come creeping from your pigeon-filled backrooms,
past guns and clocks and locks and cages,
past pockets emptied and coins picked from the floor…
When the coin of the realm is the endless shiny pennies of words, we can not only be prodigal but even look the gift horses in the mouth: How old is this word? Where does it come from? And the word’s value only increases when we do so.
So where, by the way, does this word cheapskate come from? I am married to a figure skater, and I know for certain that there is nothing cheap about skating. When we’ve made side trips in Sheffield to buy blades from the factory, and in Vienna to buy boots, for the sake of saving some dollars and getting the best selection, and when these are to be worn on ice that is created and maintained indoors even in the middle of summer, I do not put the word skate with the word cheap (except in the etymological derivation of cheap, which has to do more broadly with buying – see its German cognate kaufen). Indeed, if you want to skate well, the last thing you should be is cheap; you can save more money in lessons than you spend on skates by buying good-quality equipment.
But this skate is not that skate. There is some question of where exactly it comes from, but we know that the term cheapskate seems to date to the late 1800s, and the sense of skate meaning ‘contemptible person’ likewise. However, there’s a skite that’s been around somewhat longer, especially in Scotland, and it means much the same; we know it in blatherskite. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this unpleasant skate may be modified from that skite, though we have no etymological smoking gun.
But we do have some thoughts about where skite comes from. It’s likely connected to Old Norse, as many words in English and Scots are (especially originating in the northern parts of Britain). It happens that in some languages, over time, a [k] before a vowel such as [i] moves forward and becomes less of a stop and more of a fricative, and in combination with [s] can make [ʃ] – which is to say, “sh.” And the Old Norse word skitr from which skite might have come is also the source of Scots and English shite – and English shit. Effectively, calling someone a skite is calling them a shit.
Which seems perfectly sensible: cheapskate can be replaced in modern English with cheapshit (a word that is certainly current in essentially the same sense), and the negative uses of skate for a rotten person can likewise be turned to shit with no particular harm to the meaning.
I must be fair, of course: cheapskate is not vulgar, and it has gained some sense of quaintness by being old-fashioned; a person might even declare it as an almost endearing fault: “I’m a bit of a cheapskate, so I just walked there.” But there’s no question that in its traditional use as a direct synonym of skinflint, it isn’t at all far from cheapshit.
And no, no one likes a cheapshit. But many of us like being cheapshits when we can do so without scorning or hurting others. For we may yet, at the same time, be lavish, if we can lavish things that cost us nothing. Or, at the very least we may, with Meghan O’Rourke,
promise tomorrow I will be profligate,
stepping into the sun like a trophy.