A “cheapskate” is a mean or despicable person, also known as misers, pikers, scrooges, skinflints, tight-wads or penny-pinchers, in other words, someone with short arms and long pockets. According to Eric Partridge, “cheapskate” was also a slang term for a troublesome rating in the Royal Navy.
The exact source of “cheapskate” is unknown, but it originated in the USA in the late 1800s. The early spelling of the word was originally two words: cheap and skate.
Although a “skate” may mean footwear, a flatfish, or a worn-out horse, the Oxford English Dictionary also lists “skate” as a slang term for “a mean or contemptible person,” and that definition fits with “cheap.”
An early example can be found in Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town by George Ade, (an American writer) 1896: “Them sporty boys don’t last. They get in with a lot o’ cheap skates and chase around at nights and think they’re the real thing.”
Another example appeared in the Ohio Newark Daily Advocate in 1896 in a story about a streetcar motorman who was remonstrating with a driver of a coal wagon: “You’re a gol dinged, insignificant, pusillanimous, ragged, cheap skate of a tenth assistant barnyard corporal.”
Now that’s a comment from somebody with a creative mind and a ready tongue!
“Skate” may have been a variant of the Scottish word “skite” or “skeet,” which refers to a person who is regarded with contempt. The US word “blatherskite” refers to a person who talks interminable nonsense. “Cheapskate” and “blatherskite” seem to have been formed in the same way, so it’s likely that the Scots word was the source of “cheapskate.”
I suppose it’s fitting, with my Scottish ancestry, that I blather a lot (on paper) and am inclined to be “careful” with my pennies. Or I used to be, when we actually had pennies.