Cheap usually means inexpensive. It’s a word that has been around for centuries, traceable to Old English, where the word ceap meant to bargain, barter, or trade at a rate of reasonable exchange.
That meaning still prevails, and it is not at all uncommon for someone to say that she has purchased a product “really, really cheap.” It has gained somewhat of a derogatory meaning, as well, when used to say that a girl looked “really cheap” in the way she dressed, wore her hair, or other identifying characteristics.
But the use of cheap that strikes my attention is that of cheap shot, a term that is used frequently to identify a commentary that “hits below the belt.” That means that it is inappropriate or mean-spirited. To say that a baseball player is less that a valuable asset to his team because he has a scraggly beard, or is too heavy is a cheap shot. It has nothing to do with his ability to pitch, field a ball, or run the bases. It is simply a derogatory term expressing a bias of the commentator.
Similarly, a public official who is called ineffective because he has a degree from a State University is a cheap shot, saying more about the elitism of the speaker than the quality of the official. (As a graduate of a State University College and holding a Master’s degree from a State University, I am a little more than sensitive to this cheap shot that is not at all uncommon.)
The topic came up in an article about a basketball game in which a radio announcer said that a player was given a foul which he identified as a cheap foul. By that I suspect he meant that it was an incidental contact (something we used to value, but which has become almost extinct in officiating these days.) The official was apprised of the fact that the comment was made and accosted the commentator while he was still broadcasting. It was an ugly moment.
There is such a thing as a cheap foul. And there is such a thing as a cheap shot. Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh is, perhaps, the master of the cheap shot. He is forever making derogatory commentary on public personalities which have little, or nothing, to do with the person’s qualities or talents. The cheap shots are simply intended to undermine the credibility of the person, and are frequently hurtful and sometimes even racist or sexist. Thinking Americans have learned to screen their opinions about the information coming from Limbaugh, recognizing his bombastic style of performance, and recognizing that he is not, after all, an elected official or a person in a respected position. He is an entertainer whose primary purpose is keeping his listener numbers up there.
Cheap shots are easy to hand out. Sometimes they just slip out without a careful thought, and at other times they are intentional and well-placed. They are, at their best, inappropriate. At their worst they are damaging and perhaps even libelous.
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