Wednesday, 27 September 2017


Mind your p's and q's 

I keep finding neat little tidbits when researching for my #WordWednesday posts. Here's one I found last week. When writing briefly about manual typesetting I learned that individual letter tiles (called sorts) were placed in a composing stick. Because the sorts had to go in upside down and backwards, the typesetter had to be very careful not to confuse certain letters – mainly b, d, p and q.

Hence the expression, "Mind your p's and q's." Maybe. Or maybe not.

It's also possible that this expression comes from Merry Olde England's pubs, where patrons ordered pints and quarts, sometimes overmuch. So bartenders might have cautioned them to "mind your pints and quarts" when a brawl broke out. Or, equally possibly, pub owners might have reminded their bartenders to be accurate when marking on the tally slate how many "p's" and "q's" they sold.

Perhaps the expression came from parents who expected their children to be polite by saying "please" and "thank you" at appropriate times – p for "please" and q for the last part of "thank-yous." Or it might have come from teachers who, while teaching children to print, instructed them not mix up the letters p and q. Frankly, those both seem like too much of a stretch to me. Besides, they aren't nearly as interesting as the typesetters and bartenders, though I have to admit that the politeness reminder is a better connection to today's use of the expression – to behave properly.

Another intriguing little possibility comes from the Oxford English Dictionary which cites this from Samuel Rowland's 1612 poem, Knave of Hearts: "Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true. And looke, you Rogue, that it be Pee and Kew." Sounds to me like a brand name for a good ale, though no one seems to know for sure. So maybe we're back to the pub, and maybe we're not.

Anyway, this little journey of discovery reminds me that we can journey but not always discover, no matter how well mannered, polite and careful we might be. But I'll mind my p's and q's, anyway, and suggest that you do the same.

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