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

February 24, 2017


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.


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!

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.

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

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.

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!

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

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.

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.

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.

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:

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 🙂

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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”.


Revisited Myth #109: Laws allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and that’s where the phrase “rule of thumb” originated.

January 28, 2017


There are actually two myths here: 1) that laws allowed men to beat their wives as long as the stick was small, and 2) that this is the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb.”

First par first. In the various American colonies, laws differed from place to place and year to year. In Maryland, at least in the 1600s, beating one’s dependents with a small stick was allowed. Dependents included indentured servants, slaves, children, and wives. “The community expected him [a husband and landowner] to keep good order and the law allowed him to correct any of his charges with physical punishment, provided that any stick used in beating was no thicker than a man’s finger at its thickest end. Beating even his wife was permissible.” Lois Green Carr, “From Servant to Freeholder” Maryland Historical Magazine (Fall 2004), p. 298. Legal reference not cited. No similar references have been found that refer to thumbs and beatings, only to fingers.

Beatings with this size stick could be severe, and several cases appear against masters who beat their slaves or servants excessively, “Whereuppon mr Ouerzee beate him wth some Peare Tree wands or twiggs to the bignes of a mans finger att the biggest end, wch hee held in his hand” and the slave died. (Maryland Provincial Court Proceedings 1658) but I found no mention of wives or children being beaten with sticks, perhaps because none sued in Court. Again, the reference to stick size is a man’s finger, not a thumb.

Now for Part 2) the origins of the phrase “Rule of Thumb.” Our old reliable friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, disputes this claim. The Rule of Thumb, it says, is “a method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience without any basis in scientific knowledge; a roughly practical method.” The earliest known instance of the term is 1692: “What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.” More examples from later years follow, but nothing pertaining to beating one’s wife.

In her 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers spends five entire pages discussing the origins, legal and journalistic, of the phrase, “rule of thumb.” It is too long for me to retype the entire section and the book is not available online to cut and paste, so I can’t post it. You’ll have to read pages 203-207 at your local library if you want more detail. Suffice to say that Sommers’s exhaustive research uncovered no link between the phrase and the law, other than misguided journalists quoting one another in magazine and newspaper articles. Which is how such myths are spread.

In a nutshell, Sommers debunks the oft-repeated statement that rule of thumb laws permitting wife-beating can be found in the famous legal commentaries of William Blackstone (1723-1780), which is the basis of much U.S. common law, and that these laws prevailed in state courts throughout the 19th century. Blackstone does state, “The husband, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction . . . in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children . . . But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband.” This conforms to the Maryland law, mentioned above. (Charles II ruled 1660-1685)

“In America,” Sommers says, “there have been laws against wife beating since before the Revolution. By 1870, it was illegal in almost every state, but even before then, wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery. . . . The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states: No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense . . . “

But a couple of careless judges stated in their opinions the erroneous belief that this myth was true, and these men are often quoted as proof. In Mississippi in 1824 and in North Carolina in 1874, judges referred to an “ancient law” by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no wider than his thumb. There is no ancient law. None. And even here, neither judge referred to the supposed law as the “rule of thumb.”

Even the much-maligned Wikipedia has got this right. But there are many online sites that cheerfully and wrongly explain the origin of this phrase.



Cassidy says:
March 23, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
Interesting, but can I ask if English laws were examined and/or why they weren’t? Because what I’ve heard is that the supposed “rule of thumb” is from Sir Francis Buller, called “Judge Thumb“. I mean, I’ve also heard that Buller never actually said anything about sticks as wide as a man’s thumb, but there must be something (perhaps blown out of proportion and exaggerated for comic effect) that sparked Gillray’s cartoon.

Mary Miley says:
March 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm (Edit)
I surmise from this cartoon that there was some British law about size of sticks, like the one mentioned above in Maryland about finger-size sticks. (And I’d be delighted if you wanted to look into the topic and report back!) But the origins of the phrase, Rule of Thumb, is explained by Oxford English Dictionary (above), and I always bow to their wisdom.

nunya says:
November 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm (Edit)

And another article from Yale Law would disagree with this article (at least the feminist aspect of it). Just because something is illegal/legal on the books does NOT mean it didn’t happen.

Lisa Denton says:
August 18, 2016 at 12:16 pm (Edit)
I recently watched some old BBC episodes of what I’d call experimental archaeology/reality show, Tudor Monastery Farm (2013). In the 3rd episode, one of the historians is visiting a miller (flour). The miller mentions rule of thumb. It’s 25m 45 sec into it.
Has anyone ever heard of this origin? Or is this another misguided historical interpreter? Or is there a difference between British and American usage?

Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:23 am (Edit)
Frankly, this sounds like a possible origin of the phrase, but I can’t prove it.


Raining Cats and Dogs ?

December 30, 2016
Raining cats, dogs, and pitchforks--what a storm!

Raining cats, dogs, and pitchforks–what a storm!

“Back in the old days, when it rained people would put their cats and dogs up in the rafters so they would not get wet. [Variation: animals would climb up themselves to avoid the weather.] But the roofs often leaked, and the beams would get slippery so the animals fell, and it really was ‘raining cats and dogs’!”
There’s no myth here, just a question about the origins of this common saying. The best I can do  is to report that a word search in JSTOR made me think the origin of the phrase may be Irish, as those are the earliest written usages I found. My opinion: this is a nonsensical phrase, like “raining pitchforks,” used to indicate severe rainfall and is not based on anything concrete. 

Huzzah! The mispronunciation of a cheer

December 11, 2016


Randolph Bragg, who works as a costumed interpreter at Mount Vernon, shares his pet peeve with us this week. “It’s not really a myth, but I wish you’d try to help bust it anyway,” he writes. “I hear this waaaaay too often [at Mount Vernon] and it sets my teeth on edge every time.” What is it? The mis-pronunciation of the colonial era cheer: Huzzah! (Our version of Hooray!)

Here’s what Norman Fuss of the Journal of the American Revolution has to say about the cheer: 

“Go to any Revolutionary War period living history program or reenactment and you hear it again and again. “Huzzah for Great Washington and the Continental Congress!” “Huzzah for good King George and Parliament!” Huzzah this and Huzzah that all day. If our forefathers could come back to one of these events, they would be mightily puzzled. “What is this ”huzzah ?” they might say. “When we cheered, it was Huzzay.” Huzzay? Yes. Not Huzzah.”

How does Norman Fuss know this? His evidence comes from rhymes in poems and songs and is overwhelming. Read his complete article here. And from now on, make sure you say Huzzay! 


Revisited Myth # 130: People in the “olden days” were routinely buried with a string tied to their finger that ran above ground to a bell . . .

October 29, 2016

. . . so that in the event the deceased was merely comatose, not dead, and happened to awaken, the movement would cause ringing, giving us the expressions “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell.”


I’d been meaning to get to this one (“I’m not dead yet!”) for some time, but Susan Smyer’s forwarding of this article from George Mason University’s website, cited below, cinched it for this, the week of Halloween.

“One of the most characteristically Victorian fixations was the fear of premature burial. . . Accounts of this horrifying yet fascinating fear commonly describe the “escape coffins” reportedly sold in the nineteenth century to allow those mistakenly declared dead to save themselves at the last moment. The most popular of these, it is often said, was the cheap and simple “Bateson’s Belfry,” a bell mounted on top of a casket with a string running to the corpse’s hand within… so that, if the “deceased” suddenly awoke — before burial but in an extremely unwelcome predicament — he could instantly and easily summon help.

The striking life-story of the inventor George Bateson is also often invoked. In 1852, he patents the belfry as the “Bateson Life Revival Device.” Rising rapidly to fame and fortune, he receives the OBE from Queen Victoria in 1859. But, obsessive fear of premature burial gnawing at his own mind, he designs ever more complex alarm systems for his own coffin, finally insisting his family have him cremated. In 1868 (transposed to 1886 in some accounts), he panics his instructions will be ignored, douses himself in linseed oil and incinerates himself.

Positively dripping in Victoriana, satisfyingly redolent of Poe’s dark tales, the Bateson story has made many appearances, continuing to feature in popular books, historical web sites, and even the occasional news article. Earlier this year, it inspired a prize-winning graphic novelette.

There’s just one problem. George Bateson and his belfry never existed.”

Read the entire, very interesting article at

But did a bell device like this exist? If it did, it would not have worked, since the lack of air in a buried coffin would have killed any comatose person rather quickly. And while there are various patents filed that intended to “save” not-dead-yet people from premature burial with periscope-like devices that supposedly introduced air into the coffin, none has been documented as used.



Logan Rees says:
November 2, 2013 at 4:27 pm (Edit)
The term ‘dead ringer’ comes from horse racing, and the meaning of it doesn’t even apply to the mythical scenario. And ‘saved by the bell, is pretty obviously a boxing term. I did believe this one probably so cw fifth grade though, so thank you!

janice says:
November 2, 2013 at 4:50 pm (Edit)
that was great. you had me hooked! and then you said it never happened. funny.

Carole Kingham says:
November 2, 2013 at 6:30 pm (Edit)
If this is a repost, please disregard.
I have seen a few books who mention this story myself…they also mention medieval charnel houses that were places to leave the body at prior to burial until obvious ddecomposition had set in…with guards and a system of pulleys and bells with strings tied to the corpses finger to detect any sign of life. Since sometimes bodies do move during natural decompostion there may have been some rings and very frightened guards if these actually existed.
I always wondered about the tale of the man mistaken for dead and left at the botton of a pile of corpses after the battle of Gettysburg…who was discovered later and found to be alive but insane…have you ever found any citations on that?

Mary Miley says:
November 2, 2013 at 6:37 pm (Edit)
Re: Gettysburg incident, no, I’ve never heard that.

Deborah Brower says:
November 5, 2013 at 4:09 pm (Edit)
I’ve wondered about that one too. Most recently during a recent visit by relatives when pulled out the old Ghost’s of Gettysburg Battlefield auto tour. The tour was written by Mark Nesbitt an ex-NPS ranger at Gettysburg. He also made a couple of videos and the story might be one of the dramatizations. It was shown on the HIstory Channel several years ago. I’ll have to take another look at it and see what I can find out.

Damien says:
November 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm (Edit)
Nobel is known for the concern:
Nobel had a lifelong fear of being buried alive, and in his will he left instructions to have his arteries cut after death, just to be sure.

oldud says:
November 3, 2013 at 12:44 pm (Edit)
I thought “dead ringer” came from the practice by merchants, and others, of dropping a gold or silver coin on a hard surface to hear the sound it made. A coin of solid gold or silver will make a different sound than a counterfeit one of base metal mixed with gold or silver; the genuine gold coin making a different pitch ring and the counterfeit one making more of a thud. I have never tried it and it may be just another myth.

Mike Connolly says:
November 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm (Edit)
There are a couple of coffin alarms that are in the US Patent Office records. The Improved Burial Case. Patent No. 81,437 Franz Vester, Newark, New Jersey. August 25, 1868 and GRAVE ALARM (No Model.), Patent No. 500,072, Patented June 20, 1893
A. LINDQUIST. These two designs seem to deal with the lack of air issue as well. The most recent alarm patented was late in the 20th century…around 1980 or so I think. Anyway, it still comes down to whether or not these devices were used. Probably not very widely if at all. Nonetheless, there was a very real fear of being buried alive dating back to the 18th century in the U.S. I think it is Elizabeth Drinker’s diary that records some details about a family member observing the body of the recently departed to identify signs of death (I think she calls it putrefaction) before allowing the body to be buried. Other diaries record family members worrying about burying someone too soon ( in the case of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philly). Pretty interesting.


Revisited Myth #25: “Pop Goes the Weasel” is a cobbler’s work song.

September 7, 2014

Deborah Bower writes: “On to the myth and I think this is a tough one. The song “Pop goes the Weasel”. How old is it and does it refer to a wool winder, a hatter’s tool, or a tailors tool? I’ve had this discussion with balladeers in the tavern and they are in two camps, those who’d love to see it proven as an older tune and those who are convinced it’s 19th century. Nobody seems sure as to what exactly the weasel is, although most think it’s the wool winder. I’m confused because the words to the song talk about a cobbler’s bench. Do cobblers have a tool called a weasel? Is it a cobbler’s work song?”

Antique Yarn Winder or Yarn Weasel

Antique Yarn Winder or Yarn Weasel

There are many versions to the song, “Pop Goes the Weasel,” all of which end with that refrain. “All around the mulberry bush” is one first line; “All around the cobbler’s bench” is another; and there are more that shall remain nameless here.

First I consulted with my expert, Al Saguto, Colonial Williamsburg’s master shoemaker who was kind enough to spend some research time on this question. I learned that shoemakers and cobblers were originally different trades. Shoemakers were the skilled artisans who made shoes, and cobblers were the shoe repair men. It was a grave insult to call a shoemaker a cobbler, in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a secondary definition of cobbler as a person who works clumsily, so it was a general insult as well. Think of the phrase “to cobble something together.” 

From around 1600 to 1800, skilled shoemakers used workbenches in their trade. Poorer cobblers did not have such nice furniture; they used a three-legged stool. That changed around the middle of the 19th century when the two trades merged (Why? The introduction of manufactured shoes left the shoemaker with less work and forced him to lower himself to repair work.) The words “cobbler’s bench,” Saguto says, suggests that this version of the song could not have come about before the middle of the 1800s, when cobblers became synonymous with shoemakers and might have used a bench. Proving that we are on the right track, 1850 is also the earliest documented existence of the song.

So, did cobblers (or shoemakers) have a tool called a weasel? Saguto said no, and a check of the OED provided no evidence to the contrary. I then contacted the late Jay Gaynor, Director of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg and a former curator of mechanical arts who had a passion for antique tools. Gaynor had heard of a weasel, in fact, he owned two. It is a yarn winder, often called a yarn weasel. Gaynor explained how the thing worked, winding and measuring yarn and making a distinct POP! as it registered a certain number of yards. When you examine the rest of the rhyme, “A penny for a spool of thread, A penny for a needle,” the words would seem to fit in with the yarn and thread subject.

another yarn weasel

another yarn weasel

What doesn’t fit is the cobbler’s bench. For that matter, neither does the mulberry bush or the monkey. Mulberry bushes were common in England and America, and figure in other children’s songs (“Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush”). The OED offers numerous definitions of the word “monkey,” but none that relate to spinning, weaving, yarn, sewing, or weasels.

So, where does this leave us? Clearly, this is not a song that a cobbler sang while working at his bench. A weasel is not a cobbler’s tool, it is a spinning tool used to measure and wind yarn. “Pop goes the weasel” refers to the clicking sound that the counter makes. The earliest known appearance of the song is around 1850 in Britain, so it probably isn’t very old. A few years later, it had made it to America where the lyrics changed: “All around the cobbler’s house,” or “All around the chicken coop,” or “All around the mulberry bush,” and our favorite, “All around the cobbler’s bench.”

another one

another one

A reasonable conclusion would be that the song is part nonsense with a strong link to the spinning craft. If you still haven’t read enough about “Pop! Goes the Weasel,” check out this web site: For more about the British versions and the Cockney version, see

Myth #137: “Sleep tight” referred to tightening the ropes on a bed.

August 15, 2014


Urban legend has it that “sleep tight” referred to tightening up the ropes on the old-fashioned bed, but this is a myth perpetuated by historic house guides and visitors alike. The meaning of “tight” was a little different in the 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of its meanings was “soundly.” Another is “securely.” So “sleep tight” really just meant “Sleep well.”

Think about the expression “sit tight”–it doesn’t have anything to do with tightening the ropes on a chair, does it? 


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