cheap and tight

So, Friend 1 , Friend 2 and I were having a (BrE) natter tonight, when the fact of Mutual Acquaintance's stinginess came into the conversation. I exclaimed, "MA is so cheap!" and F1 said "It's so funny whenever you say someone's cheap when you mean tight. If you say someone's cheap here, it means something different."

Well, in the US it can mean that too--it's ambiguous. But, given the context most Americans would naturally have interpreted my comment as meaning that MA is careful with her money (to put a positive spin on it), rather than that she has loose morals. I know that in England I'm 'supposed' to say that such people are tight, but to me, that word has unappealing connotations when applied to a woman. This is not helped by my knowledge of British saying about stingy people, which is often applied to MA: She's tight as a gnat's chuff.

From now on, I think I'll have to resort to saying "MA is careful with her money for reasons that I don't entirely approve of."


  1. Yes, but if she's "tight" it could also mean she's slightly sloshed, almost smashed, or just plain drunk.

  2. That works in the UK too--though certainly wouldn't be the first interpretation. In fact, I think of it as something my parents' generation would say...

  3. or, on the Isle of Wight when I was growing up, saying sbdy was tight meant that they were frigid.

  4. Where I grew up in California, we would say a teacher was tight if she was strict. When my family moved to New Jersey, I learned that to the kids there it had the unappealing connotations you allude to. I had to stop using that one.

  5. I would like to toss out a couple more AmE meanings for cheap and tight. "Cheap" can mean something like "unfair and uncreative", especially in sports and games, as in, "That was a really cheap move." "Tight" can be applied to something quite the opposite, a well thought-out/executed plan or design or song. "Have you seen the new BMW. It looks tight!"

  6. I don't think I have led a very sheltered life, but I have never come across the phrase "tight as a gnat's chuff". It can be googled, so it clearly exists, but my guess would be that it is highly localised to time and/or place. I certainly couldn't imagine using it with any expectation of comprehension.

    In my dialect of BrE, I do think the primary meaning of 'tight' used in isolation would be to do with drink rather than money. If the latter were intended, I would expect to hear a phrase such as 'tight fisted' - though in conversation, context can sometimes avoid the risk of ambiguity.

  7. My limited understanding of BrE is that "mean" should be used in a situation like this. Is this correct?

  8. 'Mean' means 'ungenerous', really. So it would work in some but certainly not all situations where one might use 'cheap'.

  9. tight can also mean nasty, like 'our teacher was being tight in that lesson', I think it's more of a term synonymous with being ungenerous, tight-fisted. I have NEVER come across the phrase tight as a gnat's chuff. Nor have I heard tight being used to mean somebody's drunk. Mean is synonymous with tight in most situations, but it's less used so could be misinterpreted.

  10. I don't know that I've really heard this use of "cheap" very often. Many people i know use it as synonymous with "inexpensive". Though my mom always saw them as separate - cheap, to her, would signify that something was not only inexpensive, but of poor quality too.
    Thrifty, stingy, and tightwad (similar to tight) are all terms I've heard to refer to a person being "careful with their money".


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)