Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

During office discussion two turns of phrase came up in close proximity: "peace and quiet" shortly followed by "mind your P's and Q's".

What is the meaning of P's and Q's? I wondered if it might be related to peace and quiet.

share|improve this question
1  
This one is a classic. Like "the whole nine yards," there are many suggested etymologies, e.g., printer's type, pints and quarts, etc. Still disputed. –  The Raven Apr 4 '11 at 17:44
    
I think I may have come across this in World of Warcraft! That's the only place that rings a bell else first time I've heard it! Mae govannen! –  MalsR May 31 '11 at 12:52
    
@TheRaven 'Nine Yards' often refers to a 'Sari', a traditional indian female dress. It typically is nine-yards long. It's possible it's derived from there. –  mikhailcazi Sep 3 '13 at 7:24
add comment

8 Answers

I've always understood as a warning to be polite. And I've always seen it this way:

Mind your P's and Q's as in your "Pleases" (P's) and "Thank-yous"(Q's), thus the origin of P's and Q's... I don't know if anyone else has the same notion?

share|improve this answer
    
That's what my mother meant when she said it to me. –  KitFox Jul 29 '11 at 18:27
add comment

"Mind your Ps and Qs" means "be careful to behave well and avoid giving offense."
The NOAD reports that its origin is unknown; it would refer to the care a young student must take in differentiating the tailed letters p and q.

share|improve this answer
2  
What does NOAD refer to? –  John K Feb 10 '11 at 1:58
    
The exact sentence used by the NOAD is said by some to refer to the care a young student […]. –  kiamlaluno Feb 10 '11 at 2:12
    
I mean what does the NOAD acronym mean? –  John K Feb 10 '11 at 2:32
2  
I am sorry; I didn't understand. It's the New Oxford American Dictionary, the equivalent for American English of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). –  kiamlaluno Feb 10 '11 at 2:36
1  
@Phil. Similar idea; different meaning. That's about being careful in general, wheras minding your p's and q's is specifically about being polite. –  TRiG Mar 9 '12 at 15:31
show 1 more comment

It's to do with the fact that children often confuse the small 'p' with the small 'q' when learning how to write and read (like they do with b's and d's.) So if taken literally it is basically an appeal to 'be careful, be precise, listen to what you teacher has told you' - which comes pretty close to its use in language (i.e. mothers with their children.)

share|improve this answer
2  
-1 This is one of many suggested etymologies. –  The Raven Apr 4 '11 at 18:10
    
...I didn't realise there was a problem with p's and q's like that. I guess some people aren't taught that q has a pointy tail...? I mixed up my cursive g's and q's because of it, but never my print p's and q's. Hmm. –  kitukwfyer Apr 4 '11 at 18:22
add comment

Another theory I have heard - probably apocryphal - is that it has to do with the two branches of the Celtic family of languages: P-celtic (i.e. Brythonic - Welsh etc.) and Q-celtic (i.e. Goideilic - Irish etc.). It was said to date from when these were beginning to separate and you had to get the pronunciation right in each area to be understood.

To be honest this sounds rather unlikely as why would it be an idiom in English - a language from a completely different family.

share|improve this answer
1  
This could only be true if those languages were called by those names at the time that the idiom was coined. And generally when languages are beginning to separate you don't need to be too careful about pronunciation since you'll still be understood. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Apr 4 '11 at 18:04
add comment

There are many theories, (some of them given in answers here) but none of them has any supporting evidence whatever. WorldWideWords has an article.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I read somewhere that it came about, ages ago, to remind people in the printing business, to be careful when typesetting 'p' and 'q', because it was easy to confuse the two. In general, this would mean to take extra care with what you were doing. Now, it appears to have several meanings including:

  • Mind what you say

  • Mind your manners, specifically 'pleases' and 'thank yous'

  • Mind your own business

All of which are related.

I wonder if it would be acceptable to use 'mind your Ps and Qs' to mean take extra care with what you are doing? I have never heard the phrase used in that context.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I've always heard that it was originally short for "Mind your Pints and Quarts!" Something an innkeeper (or what-have-you) would shout to an unruly common room to settle them down. According to AUE no one's particularly sure, but they list a few other theories, including what they consider to be the most likely: "Mind your 'please's and 'thank you's".

Link: http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxmindyo.html

share|improve this answer
    
+1 This is the only answer that gives an origin/etymology! I've heard this same origin (the pints and quarts one - the other seems dubious). The other interesting origin is to do with the printing press. –  Noldorin Feb 10 '11 at 16:47
add comment

It means

Be on your best behaviour; be careful of your language.

The date of the coinage of 'mind your Ps and Qs' is uncertain. There is a citation from Thomas Dekker's play, The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet, 1602, which appears to be the earliest use of the expression:

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/mind-your-ps-and-qs.html

share|improve this answer
5  
In particular I know it to mean "be polite", I was often told that it meant " P lease and Thank- Q s" [sic]. –  Orbling Feb 10 '11 at 1:54
2  
@Orbling: Certainly, it's always been please and thank yous in my mind for as long as I can remember. –  Jimi Oke Feb 10 '11 at 4:40
    
@All, yep "Please and thanQs" for me too. –  Benjol Feb 10 '11 at 9:01
2  
As a general rule, any etymology that involves abbreviations and predates about 1940 is false. –  Malvolio Mar 16 '11 at 19:43
add comment

protected by RegDwigнt Nov 2 '12 at 19:10

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.