Idiom IQ: Mind Your Ps & Qs

by Davina on June 15, 2012

“On all occasions next the chair
He stands for service of the Mayor
And to instruct him how to use
His A’s and B’s, and P’s and Q’s.”

~ Charles Churchill

(Note that there should not be an apostrophe used in the above quote since these are not being used in the possessive form.)

The origin of the Ps and Qs idiom

The most common meaning behind the phrase Mind your Ps and Qs is to mind your manners or mind your language; in other words, to behave or speak politely. It is believed to be an abbreviation of Mind your pleases and thank-yous.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the true origin of this phrase is in reference to learning the alphabet. In 2007, while revising the entry, an early example of its use was discovered in that poem shown above.

4 possible origins of Ps and Qs phrase

Note: One of the following has been made up by myself. Can you guess which one? Perhaps you’d like to offer your version :)

1. Hot metal typesetting Ps and Qs

It’s been said that Mind your Ps and Qs was advice given to a printer’s apprentice. While using early printing presses, individual letters were arranged in a frame to print a page of text. Because the letters were placed on the frame, reversed, it was easy to mix up letters such as “p” and “q.”

2. Mind your pints and quarts

Seventeenth-century bartenders in English pubs, would remind their customers to mind their ps and qs with regards to how much they were drinking. It’s also been noted that bartenders were careful not to confuse pints and quarts when writing orders down on their tally slates.

3. Mind the peace and quiet
In the sixth century, Cassiodorus founded the monastery of Vivarium in southern Italy. He established a library to preserve sacred texts for future generations and educated his monks in the proper methods for copying texts. During study sessions the phrase “mind the peace and quiet” evolved to mind your Ps and Qs.

4. Mind your feet and wigs

Mind your pieds and queues — Another potential origin of this phrase, from 18th-century French dance masters, to mind your feet and wigs while dancing. Or, an instruction when one was learning how to dance for a ball. Or, two of the most common moves dancing instructors would teach.

It’s interesting how many different interpretations there are of this one. One thing they all have in common though, is that pied is the French translation for feet.

Have you heard any other interesting origins of this phrase, or other phrases?

Which one of these four origins do you believe I made up?

P.S. On June 20th, I’ll be celebrating my four-year blogging anniversary. Hard to believe!

Image Credit: Green Chair Press

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