mind your Ps and Qs

The origin of the phrase mind your Ps and Qs, meaning to be careful of one’s behavior, is not known. Explanations for the phrase abound. Some are plausible, some are not. Let’s start with what we know.

The phrase dates to at least 1779 when it appears in Hannah Cowley’s Who’s The Dupe?:

You must mind your P’s and Q’s with him, I can tell you.

There are other forms that are older, such as this from Samuel Rowlands’ 1612 The Knave of Harts:

Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true: And looke, you Rogue, that it be Pee and Kew.

And there is this from Thomas Dekker’s 1602 Satiro-Mastix:

Now thou art in thy pee and cue.

The pee here is a reference to pea cloth, a course woolen cloth common in men’s clothing of the day. The cue is mysterious.

One plausible explanation is that it comes from the difficulty children have learning to write. The letters P and Q can be easily confused when first learning to write. William Combe writes in his 1820 The Second Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of Consolation:

And I full five-and-twenty year Have always been school-master here; And almost all you know and see, Have learn’d their Ps and Qs from me.

While this explanation appears some decades after the phrase’s appearance, it is perhaps the most plausible explanation. A variant on this explanation is that it is not children who are confused, but rather apprentice printers. Since type is the mirror image of the printed letter, it is easy to confuse the letters P and Q when examining blocks of type. While the printer variant is plausible, there is no evidence to confirm it.

Another plausible explanation is that it is a reference to “prime quality.” P and Q is used to mean prime quality in the dialect of Shropshire and Herefordshire. So to mind one’s Ps and Qs is to assure that something is the very best. The 1612 Rowlands’ quote could be interpreted in this fashion, although the use of P and Q or pee and kew to mean prime quality is not attested until the 19th century. It seems more likely that this is a retroactive interpretation of the phrase rather than the origin.

Then there are the less plausible explanations. One of which is, of course, that the phrase is nautical in origin.

The explanation is the the P stands for a sailor’s pea jacket and the Q is for queue, or pigtail. Sailors would often wear their hair in a queue and after many weeks at sea without washing it would become greasy and could stain a sailor’s pea jacket. The pee in Dekker’s 1602 quote above is a reference to pea cloth, but it is not in a nautical context and while today pea cloth is associated with sailors, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was not, being widely used in all walks of life. Furthermore, queue, meaning pigtail, does not appear until the mid-18th century, well after the early versions of the phrase had appeared. So this nautical explanation is all wet.

Another commonly suggested, but implausible, explanation is that it is a variation on mind your pleases and thank yous, a plea for gentility and manners. There is no evidence to support this, nor does the please and thank you phrase appear anywhere except in explanations of the Ps and Qs origin.

Finally, perhaps the best known implausible explanation is that the phrase is a reference to pints and quarts. According to the explanation, taverns would keep customers’ tabs on chalkboards, tallying up the numbers of pints and quarts of drink each patron consumed. To mind one’s Ps and Qs was either a plea to the barkeep to be careful to mark the right column or to the patron not to drink too much. The explanation appears in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in January 1852:

Who ever knew, until comparatively late years, what was the origin of the cautionary saying, “Mind your P’s and Q’s?” A modern antiquarian, however, has put the world right in relation to that saying: In ale-houses, in the olden time, when chalk “scores” were marked upon the wall, or behind the door of the tap-room, it was customary to put the initials “P” and “Q” at the head of every man’s account, to show the number of “pints” and” quarts” for which he was in arrears; and we may presume many a friendly rustic to have tapped his neighbor on the shoulder, when he was indulging too freely in his potations, and to have exclaimed, as he pointed to the chalk-score, “Mind your P’s and Q’s, man! mind your P’s and Q’s!”

As we can see, this explanation only dates to the mid-19th century and it fails to account for the form learn one’s Ps and Qs, which as we have seen existed prior to this explanation appearing. We can safely dispense with this explanation.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition. Note recent updates to the OED’s New Edition have eliminated the citations for this phrase. Evidently, it is not going to be included in the entry for P anymore. Presumably, the phrase will be addressed elsewhere. When searching the OED online, one must be sure to search the 2nd edition to find the citations.)

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