Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Minding your Ps and Qs

One of my interests is collecting the origins of colorful words and phrases. Sometimes the item is lost in antiquity, but people still come up with ideas where they came from. It is often hard to tell the lies from the truth.

Ale used to be served by the tankard which held a quart. You were charged by the angle of your elbow: half way up, you were charged for a pint; all the way up you had drunk a whole quart. Thus you had to be conscious of minding your Ps and Qs.

Somehow I doubt this is the truth.

Beating around the bush: bird hunters used to beat or make noise to cause the birds to fly out so they could be shot.

That's pretty straightforward, even obvious. But it doesn't seem to be compatible with the meaning of the adage, does it? To beat around the bush is to waste time and not come to the point. How were bush-beating hunters wasting time?

I don't believe that one either.

Who has the imagination to put forward other possibilities (more plausible, please) for these lame explanations found in "authoritative" books? By "imagination" I mean YOU think it up instead of going to Google.

(Incidentally, I was long ago taught that minding one's Ps and Qs came from the days when printers hand-set type, and a common "typo" was them putting a p upside down, making it a q. I still like that explanation better. Except one time I realized that an upside down p was a b not a q.)


  1. I was told that "Mind your p's and q's" relates to the days when children worked at learning to write in a clear hand.
    And that adults would remind them to take care over their letters. P's and q's are easily confused by children.
    And where children were present and adults were talking, a child might be admonished sternly "Mind ypur p's and q's", meaning, don't interrupt, keep your mind on your task, not on listening to grown-ups.
    The pints and quarts and elbows story is laughable.
    Zero credibility.
    As for beating about the bush, I think the point is that one must beat the bush, not about it, to disturb the two birds who would only be half as valuable in the hand.

  2. Ypur? Mind your o's and p's, souberquit.

  3. Ha... I always thought it was P's = Pleases, and Q's = Thank yous... Thank Q's... silly me...

  4. I heard a little rhyme, hardly a poem though it was described as such:

    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

    Written in the 18th century and so considered to be the original. And, yes,I did have to look up the words, but I knew where to find them.

    As for beating about the bush, well, I couldn't rightly say.

  5. I'd wondered if p's and q's might refer to whimsically named dishes from England (that children might not have wanted to eat).

    Merriam-Webster agrees with Soubriquet. Google, pshaw!

  6. My guess on the p's and q's is that it is one more hardship for the dyslexics of the world to deal with.

    Beating around the bush seems like it might have some sexual context-at least AC/DC seems to think so.

  7. You just HAD to make me click a link to get to here.. good idea though. Like the new place, feels familiar enough. :)

  8. I heard the typesetter theory as well, only it's not putting the p's or q's upside down, but rather reversing them front to back, which would make more sense.

  9. Here is the REAL story about Ps and Qs. During WWII, vegetables were at a premium in the United Kingdom, due to rationing. The most hard-to-get vegetable of all were peas during that sad time of deprivation. People had to form long lines to get what few peas there were. They had "Line Wardens" who walked along the line to keep it straight. Over and over, as they walked, they would mutter, "Mind the Queue, mind the queue." Since the peas were rationed in open bowls with a ladle, great care had to be taken not to spill them on the way home to the masher, as they would not be able to get more peas until the following month. As they walked carefully between the long lines, carrying their open bowls of peas, they exercised great caution so as not to bump into either the standees or the Line Wardens. They were mindful of the loss that could ensue. Over time, the verbal caution to "Mind your queues was understood, tacitly, to mind one's queues AND peas. Of course, it wasn't long before the Cockneys made a nonsense rhyme of it and somehow peas ended up being first.

    Ok, THIS is what I was talking about when I asked you to make up your own reasons behind the adages. Now, let's just try it one more time - this time on "Cutting through the red tape."


  10. @Soubriquet - You sound at least semi-plausible on this. I'm skeptical about the bush beatings though. Seems to me any bird worth his tailfeathers would fly out of the bush if beating were occurring anywhere near the bush.

    So you SCOFF at the tankard. I see. :)

    @Caroline - I read that too, about the "thank Q" thing. It is as good as any other explanation. (Except mine, which is the correct one.) :)

    @A. - It isn't so much that you heard such a rhyme as it is scary that you've remembered it. I think I speak for us all when I say we trust this won't happen again. :) Well, that wasn't so bad, though.

    I do agree that if it were written in the 18th century, it would HAVE to be authentic. Who could argue with that logic? Not I.

    I have heard of long hand and short hand, but never clear hand. Vas ist dis clear hand? Oh. I get it. :)

    And thank you for not guessing about the bush. We strive for accuracy here, not guessing games. One never can tell when this blog might be secretly reviewed by good writers.

    @Stephanie B - Soubriquet, pshaw!

    Ye'll be regretin' the day you first agreed with THAT bounder. I'm tellin' ye.

    @Descartes - Once again with the guessing. This is a very scientific blog.: ) What we want to do here is gather Ps and Qs facts and use them to subsume bush evidence. Only then will we attempt to formulate sexual theories. This is the Max Method you've undoubtedly heard so much about about.

    I do admit I highly respect the AC/DC source materials, though, assuming we are both talking about the same AC/DC who wrote the legendary lyrics

    'Cause I'm back
    Yes, I'm back
    Well, I'm back
    Yes, I'm back
    Well, I'm back, back
    (Well) I'm back in black
    Yes, I'm back in black

    Well, I'm back, Yes I'm back
    Well, I'm back, Yes I'm back
    Well, I'm back, back
    Well I'm back in black
    Yes I'm back in black

    hooo yeah
    Ohh yeah
    Yes I am
    Oooh yeah, yeah Oh yeah
    Back in now
    Well I'm back, I'm back
    Back, I'm back
    Back, I'm back
    Back, I'm back
    Back, I'm back
    Back in black
    Yes I'm back in black

    Because, if it is, I'm going back over to Soubriquet's side of the aisle vis a vis bush.

    I don't know, Descartes. While I DO hesitate to call you loyal (as you know) I still appreciate that you have become regular, and, all needless ranting aside, I have a feeling that much of what you say is true. At least in a parallel universe sort of context.

    @Kell - Speaking of sexual theories! Just when I think the saucer had taken you away, you escape back to earth and to the Maxblog where you belong, however fleetingly. How have you been? What have you been doing? Did they feed you well in the saucer? Or only probe? I for one have missed you. You better come back more often or I will rat you out to your parole officer. Or something.

    Seriously, it's good to see you again! ::wags tail rapidly::

    PS - I love your new avatar. It's great head.

    @Boris Legradic - I remember you! I'm glad you returned. And, because I want you to stop by again, I won't insult you by pointing out that you can't put a type slug in backwards. Or can you? I don't know, maybe one can. Happily we are now on to red tape since the regulars on this blog were so lame with the other two. I hope you will play. Your guess about red tape is as good as, well, anybody's, actually. Thank you, sincerely, for commenting.

    @Relax Max - Oh, that's me. Never mind.

  11. I think the earliest typefaces where just lead-letters, so you probably could reverse them. But this is not important, on to the red tape!

    While the OED wants to make us believe that the phrase came from the red strips of cloth used to hold together official documents, the truth is more gruesome. The tape in 'red tape' refers not to a strip, but rather to the tape-worm. A common affliction in the medieval ages, tape-worms had to be removed forcefully, and quite painfully through the anus. The worm was slowly wound around a piece of wood, a couple of centimetres per hour, a procedure that could take days, and often resulted in the death of the patient from internal bleeding. That is, until the famous doctor Paracelsus came up with a new procedure: He found out that if you cut the tape-worm once it started to turn red, i.e. cut the red tape, it would die, and the rest of the worm would be naturally expelled and digested by the body.
    Over time, 'cut the red tape' came to signify any procedure that shortened a painful process.

  12. Obviously, peas, in earlier times, were tricky little devils. They could not be grown, as our modern peas can, in neat rows, oh no, the wild pea was a free-ranging pea, and domesticating them was a slow and arduous process.
    For thousands of years, peaherders would undertake a solitary and nomadic life, nurturing their flocks of wild peas, across the boundless steppes, the mountain wastes, the desrt wildernesses.
    Occasionally, a lone peaherder would, by chance, happen across a grove of grazing quantaloupes, looked after by a ravishing young quantaloupess, (as the girls who nurtured young quantaloupes were called), well, solitariness can sometimes be loneliness, and it was not unknown for shy glances to lead to amour, the young people succumbing to wild abandoned passion in the forest glade, falling, languid, damply, asleep in each others arms, slumbering, only to be awakened by the panicked cries of peas, as they are attacked by packs of wild colanders.

    A flock of peas might be lost in moments, after months of careful nurture.
    And a young quantaloupess might return home to her parents cottage, as round, and tightly stretched as her charges.

    No wonder then, that the parents of adolescent boys, away to the peaherding, and those of nubile wenches with quantaloupes, would admonish their offspring, sternly "And MIND your Peas and Qs!"
    Those parents, harkening back themselves, to fond memory of thir own days, rolling in a bed of mushy peas.

  13. @Boris Legradic - I love it! I LOVE IT!

    I don't think I can top that. Whew!

  14. @Soubriquet. I give up. You win this round. But I will be back to fight another day, cutting through the red tape. Although I think Boris already has me bested there.



Related Posts with Thumbnails