Monday, September 03, 2007

Mind Your P's and Q's

Mikki Paul from Medina, Ohio, asks about the origin of “mind your p’s and q’s.”

Let me say from the start that no qualified source seems to know with certainty, but that doesn’t stop people (especially those with spasmodic “forward” e-fingers) from disseminating dogmatic opinions.

The core meaning is, pay attention to the fine details, and later it turned into behave yourself. Here are some explanations that have been proffered for its origin:

• It stands for mind your pennies and quarters.
Do you know anyone who can’t tell the difference even in the dark? That’s why they’re ridged, people!

• It stands for mind your pints and quarts. Two versions of this story:
(1) It was an admonition given by the pub owner to bartenders and waitresses who marked orders on a slate or a piece of paper.
(2) It was an admonition to patrons who ran a tab to make sure that they weren’t being overcharged when the day of reckoning arrived.

• It was an admonition not to transpose the letters p and q given either to
(1) printers in the days of cold type who looked at letters that were upside down and backwards or
(2) school children just learning the alphabet.
One problem is that d and b suffer the same confusion, so why not mind your b’s and d’s? Perhaps there once was such a version, and the p & q version won out because of its more explosive nature, but that’s all unfounded speculation.

• It was an admonition to sailors not to stain their pea jackets with the grease or powder from their pigtails (queues).

• It was an admonition to French dancing masters not to mess up two intricate dance steps (pieds and queues).

• It stands for mind your periods and question marks, and it was an admonition given to student writers to choose correct end-of-sentence punctuation.

• It stands for mind your pleases and thank-you’s.
This is derided by the online Phrase Finder, but it has some merit. If you have raised children or closely observed them, pease is standard babytalk for please, and The Oxford English Dictionary defines kew as “short for thank you.” In addition, Mark English says this: “The most plausible explanation is the one given in the latest edition of Collins English Dictionary: an alteration of "Mind your 'please's and 'thank you's."

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