When something is really cheap it’s said to be cheaper than dirt. That means not only cheap, but incredibly cheap. Deals like that are hard to find. It’s even cheaper than dirt cheap which is in itself very inexpensive.
Etymology is the study of the origin of words. Words come from many different sources. Many of our words in the English language have roots in the Latin or Greek languages. Sometimes they come from old English or middle English, which themselves derived from the roots of more ancient languages. It’s an interesting study. And one that can be applied to the examination of cheaper than dirt.
Some words or phrases actually reversed in meaning over time. For example, the term girl used to refer to a young child of either gender. Over time it began to be used as a slur, or insult, meaning a man who had not grown up. Then it took on the modern meaning of a young woman. That flip took place in 1530. Its meaning as a term for sweetheart dates back to about 1648. It’s used in the phrase girlfriend after about 1892. The Greek root meant a virgin. Thus the word was originally applied to young people who had not yet been married.
On to the etymology of cheaper than dirt. The expression dates back to ancient times. It denoted something that had no value, and therefore no price. It was used interchangeably with the phrase dirt cheap. Although, according to the words, it would mean something even cheaper. It came into popular use in the 1860s when it replaced the term dog cheap.
In history sometimes even dirt isn’t cheaper than dirt. For example in Haiti dirt is so valuable that Haitians will cross into the Dominican Republic to steal topsoil. And it was well known that Hitler stole train loads of Ukrainian black dirt. He used this to improve gardens in Germany. That was because he knew more food would be needed to feed the people.
If you ever need to purchase soil, you know it isn’t really cheaper than dirt. In fact soil can be quite expensive. Some companies have taken advantage of the name to denote that they offer bargain prices for soil and other gardening products. These are companies like The Dirt Cheap Mulch Company. It even has its own website.
Next time you hear the phrase cheaper than dirt you’ll have some idea what it means.