By Kelly Laycock
We’re probably all familiar with the expression, and from an early age – usually mom scolding us for being impolite at the dinner table, or some such scenario. But where does it come from? (Notice there are no apostrophes to mark possession. They are simple plurals. Just add s!) The origin of this very polite phrase is mired in rumour and speculation, and it seems a fanciful discussion to get us all back into the swing of things after the holidays.
The first theory, and probably the one most of us are familiar with, is that Ps and Qs come from please and thank you. When said quickly, the pronunciation is quite similar: Mind your please (Ps) and thank-yous (Qs). A slight variation on this is “please and excuse me”. Fine manners, indeed, but as the Oxford Dictionaries website points out:
This would be fine, except for the fact that ‘pleases and thank yous’, as a phrase, is not independently attested before the 20th century. It is unlikely, therefore, that a contraction of the phrase would exist nearly 300 years before.
They are referring to the first known quotation of the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary (the standard resource for finding the etymology and history of words in the English language). It explains that in 1602 Thomas Dekker used the expression in his play The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet: “Now thou art in thy Pee and Kue, thou hast such a villanous broad backe, that I warrant th’art able to beare away any mans iestes in England.” The “Pee” here is a pea coat and the “Kue” would be a queue, another name for a ponytail. These were the normal fashion of sailors at that time. Sound good? Well, Oxford Dictionaries doesn’t think so. They say:
While it is conceivable that the P here could refer to the sailor’s garment, there seems to be no connection with clothing in any of the other senses. When you add the fact that queue is attested considerably later, this explanation seems less and less likely.
Let’s write that one off then. So what other quality theories are out there? World Wide Words says this:
To confuse the matter somewhat, we also have examples of a closely similar expression, P and Q or pee and kew. This was seventeenth-century slang and meant “highest quality”… The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from Rowlands’ Knave of Harts of 1612: “Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true: And looke, you Rogue, that it be Pee and Kew.” Nobody is really sure what either P or Q stood for. To say they’re the initials of “Prime Quality” seems to be folk etymology, because surely that would make “PQ” rather than “P and Q”.
There is no shortage on theories here! Wikipedia offers an explanation that takes us back to Medieval Latin, and the proper reading of the sacred texts:
…the letters “p” and “q” had various scribal abbreviation symbols for different shortened words. For example, “q” with a dot over it was the abbreviation for quod while “p” with a line through the tail of the letter was the symbol for per. Minding that these abbreviations were interpreted accurately (i.e. that one read “per” as opposed to “post” or “pro”) would ensure the correct reading of the text.
Or perhaps Latin isn’t your thing. What about French? The Phrase Finder tells us that French dancing masters would have instructed their charges to mind their pieds (feet) and queues (wigs) while dancing. Unfortunately, though, “there’s no reason to suppose it is from France and no version of the phrase exists in French.” Quelle dommage.
So where does that leave us? We are getting close, I think, to discovering the true origin of this enigmatic phrase (or at least the one that suits me best!). If you love typesetting and publishing like I do, you’ll appreciate why this next theory is No. 2 on my list of favourites. It has to do with the printing press! Wikipedia explains:
Printers placed individual letters on a frame to print a page of text. The letters were reversed, making it easy to mistake lowercase ps and qs in setting the type and were fined for every spelling mistake, hence the personal financial importance of accuracy.
That makes a lot of sense to me, but Wikipedia has one more theory for being mindful of your Ps and Qs that speaks to me even more. For those of you who know me, it will come as no surprise that my No. 1 favourite theory comes directly from English pubs and taverns from the 17th century:
Bartenders would keep a watch on the alcohol consumption of the patrons, keeping an eye on the pints and quarts that were consumed. As a reminder to the patrons, the bartender would recommend they “mind their Ps and Qs”. This may also have been a reminder to bartenders not to confuse the two units, written as “p” and “q” on the tally slate.
Oh, how I love beer. After all this, I wouldn’t mind a P or Q right now! How about you?