Q: Is the expression “fold like a cheap suit” or “fold like a cheap suitcase”? Most of the people I’ve asked think it should be “suit,” but I remember it as “suitcase.”
A: The verb “fold” has been used for hundreds of years to mean “give way,” “collapse,” or “fail.” But it’s been used for only a few dozen years in expressions like the ones you’re asking about.
There are many variations on the “fold” theme, including “fold like a cheap tent,” “fold like a cheap lounge chair,” and “fold like a cheap camera” (a reference to the inexpensive folding cameras of days gone by).
These expressions, sometimes called “snowclones” by linguists, follow a verbal pattern (like “X is the new Y” or, in this case, “fold like a cheap X”) into which various words can be inserted by people too lazy to come up with new clichés.
In a 2004 post on the Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum credits the economist Glen Whitman with coining the term for “these non-sexually reproduced journalistic textual templates.”
The linguist Arnold Zwicky, in discussing the “fold like a cheap X” formula on his blog in 2009, questions the use of the word “suit” here, then suggests a possible explanation for the usage.
“Suit would not have been my first choice as a filler for X, suits (even cheap ones) not being notable for ease of folding,” he writes. “But maybe the cliché ‘all over someone like a cheap suit’ promoted suit for X.”
Zwicky mentions several other choices as a filler for X, including “shirt,” “umbrella,” “cocktail umbrella,” “lawn chair,” “deck chair,” “card table,” “pocket-knife,” “wallet,” “blanket,” and “accordion.”
The earliest example in writing that we could find for any of these “fold like a cheap X” expressions is from White Rat: A Life in Baseball, a 1987 memoir by Whitey Herzog:
“The Phils, I think, were secretly rooting for the Cardinals to win the second half because they knew they could throw Steve Carlton at us in the mini-playoffs and we’d fold like a cheap tent.”
The earliest written example we’ve found for the “suitcase” version is from All Out, a 1988 novel by Judith Alguire: “She folded like a cheap suitcase.”
And the first written example we’ve found for the “suit” formula is from Another 48 Hours, Deborah Chiel’s 1990 novelization of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte film: “Wilson folded like a cheap suit to the ringing applause of everyone present.”
And now we’ll fold like a cheap laptop and call it a day.