Revisited Myth # 112: “Mind Your Ps and Qs” meant watch out for Pints and Quarts.

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There are several myths associated with the phrase “Mind your Ps and Qs.”

One says it was a warning to watch out for cheating bartenders who would short you when you ordered a pint or a quart.

Another says it means to watch your “pieds” (feet) and “queus” (wigs), or watch your behavior from head to toe. Yet another says it comes from the master printer reminding his young typesetters to distinguish between the letter P and the letter Q, which are virtually indistinguishable in lower case.

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The author of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) notes that of the several explanations he had heard, none were “wholly satisfactory,” but he preferred the interpretation “Be very circumspect in your behaviour” from the French dancing master’s caution to mind your “pieds” and “queues.” I don’t agree.

Personally, I lean toward the printing shop origin. A typesetter in those days had to arrange the type in rows in mirror image, and frankly, looking at a lower case P (p) and a lower case Q (q), which are the backward versions of each other, I can see how that would be very, very easy to confuse. But there is no sure-fire answer to this claim, so you’ll have to decide for yourself.

 

Previous Comments:

Pat Smith says:
April 28, 2013 at 9:11 am (Edit)
I like the print shop one, of course!

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oldud says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am (Edit)
I believe Ockam’s razor would apply to this myth. The explanation with the least stretch would be the print shop.

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Lynn Thornton says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
As a teacher the p and q one makes a great deal of sense – especially in a print shop with a dyslectic typesetter

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Dani Stuckle says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:43 am (Edit)
P’s would be “Please” and Q’s are “Thank You” –just a reminder to mind your manners.

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Chris D. says:
April 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm (Edit)
I’m all for the print shop origin, as it makes the most sense. Somewhat related: I teach classes on both home and industrial sewing machines, and I’ve borrowed this phrase to remind people that different machines require different ways of loading a bobbin. When holding a bobbin with the thread tail dangling it looks like a p or q, depending on which side the tail’s on. It is inserted in the q position for our industrial, and the p position for our home machines (may be different for other folk’s machines though). Mind your Ps & Qs helps them remember that they can’t just pop it in any which way!

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Mary Miley says:
April 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm (Edit)
Very creative!

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Daud Alzayer says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
The print shop does not make sense because it has nothing to do with manners. Dani offers the best theory if you ask me; simple wordplay seems a lot more plausible than something specific to a single trade, especially when the meaning doesn’t match.

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Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:39 am (Edit)
Most proverbial analogies have little to do with the originating inspiration. It’s the poetic irony that makes the point.

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Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:37 am (Edit)
It’s more likely to mistake p and q on a composing stick than it is to mistake a pint from a quart. I’ll go with the printing analogy as being the most plausible off all.

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Beth says:
April 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm (Edit)
There is a good discussion of the various possible origins of “Ps and Qs” at the awesome “Phrase Finder” website: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/mind-your-ps-and-qs.html

I’m pretty sure I made mention of this site before for “Pop goes the Weasel.” It’s well-researched and fascinating. Everytime I visit, I invariably end up losing an hour or so if I’m not careful 🙂

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Mary Miley says:
April 29, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Edit)
Yes, an excellent site. Thanks for reminding us.

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Keith says:
April 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
I had heard that the Ps and Qs were for a tally board at a tavern where the # of pints and quarts were recorded per customer.

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Mike says:
May 21, 2016 at 8:38 pm (Edit)
The French word “queue”, means tail, not wig. It is also used for a line up, or a queue, as for in front of a cinema. In vulgar slang, it is also used for a certain male body part.

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Andrew says:
June 1, 2016 at 5:07 pm (Edit)
Definitely comes from the world of the movable press. Since typesetting was done in mirror image, a p would be a q when typeset and the q a p. No other two letters are so close when reversed and thus they had to mind these two in particular.

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Tina Gubbings says:
August 18, 2016 at 6:37 am (Edit)
b & d ?

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Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:29 am (Edit)
Mind your Bs and Ds???

Curtis Cook says:
February 18, 2017 at 7:27 am (Edit)
Speaking as someone who spent ten weeks as a typesetter (and hopes never to have to do that again), in the font we were using the ‘b’ and ‘d’ WERE the ‘q’ and ‘p’, respectively. We simply rotated the ‘p’ 180 degrees to get a ‘d’ and rotated the ‘q’ when we needed a ‘b’.

I, of course, find the typesetter solution to be the most likely. Trying to keep the ‘p’s and ‘q’s straight was the bane of my existence.

Mary Miley says:
February 18, 2017 at 8:53 am (Edit)
So say all the apprentices at Colonial Williamsburg’s printer’s shop.

Gary Bulthouse says:
October 2, 2016 at 3:30 pm (Edit)
I think it has it’s origin in the math expressions in LOGIC. E.G. In Modus tollens: if P then Q… and all the other logical equations. It makes more sense than any other explanation offered here because it’s saying quite clearly “mind the rules”.

Reply

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2 Responses to Revisited Myth # 112: “Mind Your Ps and Qs” meant watch out for Pints and Quarts.

  1. Victoria VanDagna says:

    According to the docents at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the phrase “mind your p’s and q’s” is referring to the printing trade.

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