Veteran bartender and trainer and self-professed cunning linguist Wayne Collins has something of an obsession for rediscovering the spirituous origins of common phrases, idioms and expressions.
Usage: As in 'Mind your Ps and Qs', which is taken to mean 'mind your manners or language', to 'be on your best behavior' - as told by nervous parents to their troublesome offspring. It is common phrase that was probably drilled into us all from school days. But where does it come from?
It is widely thought that the phrase's true origin lies in the days of the early printing business, when individual letters were placed on a press. As typesetters had to place letters in reverse on the press, p's and q's were easily confused in lower case and letters would be reversed in the finished book or newspaper. This led to it becoming an attribute for teaching children how to spel. I mean, spell.
However, when I was a young costermonger working on fruit and veg market stalls, I remember how the butchers shops would often use 'P & Q' price cards to highlight 'Prime & Quality'. That's been in use at cattle markets from the 17th century, and this led to total confusion when I got my first bartender job at a relative's pub when I was 19 and told by an old regular to 'watch your pints and quarts'
So does it owe its lineage to taverns of old? As far back as the 17th century, pub landlords would keep a tally written on slate with chalk listing the 'Pints' and 'Quarts' consumed by customers (hence the term, 'put it on my slate') of how many Ps and Qs their customers were drinking. This would help the landlord keep an eye on how many Ps & Qs their customers had rung up, and it may also have been a reminder to illiterate bartenders of the day not to confuse the two sizes of serving when running a tab.
Other less convincing origins:
â€¢ A more intriguing myth is that it comes form the French 'pieds' (feet) and 'queues' (wigs), and that the phrase, 'mind your p's and q's' was an instruction when one was learning how to dance for a ball. This is possible, since we stole most of our linguistics from the French.
â€¢ It is also thought that its origins lie with 18th century sailors who were reminded to look after their 'peas' (as in peacoats) and queues (wigs) by the ship's captain for inspection. There is also a strong reference dating back to 1602 of 'pee' and 'kue' being used by playwright Thomas Dekker as a reference to a gentleman's attire.
â€¢ It is also possible that the expression refers to the old Latin reading of texts: the letters "p" and "q" had various scribal abbreviation symbols for different shortened words. For example, 'q' with a dot over it was the abbreviation for 'quod' while 'p' with a line through the tail of the letter was the symbol for 'per'.
â€¢ Or has it merely become a phonetic abbreviation of 'Please' and 'Thank yous' or 'Please and Excuse me' - this would certainly explain its use by parents educating their children to be well-mannered.
Being an old Londoner and lover of the good old British boozer my belief lies with the theory of it been popularised by how landlords kept track of customers' tabs on an old pub slate.
Wayne is Mixxit Global Manager for spirits & liqueur distributor Maxxium UK