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When editing the title to this question here on our sister site ELL:

my childish inner self was tempted to try and make some sort of scatological pun on the "p" in the question. Now, if you play enough scrabble, you may be aware of the notional spellings for the names of the English letters. The name of the letter P, for example, is spelled pee according to many dictionaries. This of course would enable one to come up with the pun in the title of this question—which I was tempted to use for that other question (for about five seconds).

However, on discussing this point with a colleague of mine, we both noted that we have never seen the word pee used in any piece of authentic written text. My colleague then ventured so far as to argue that he doubted that the written word pee even existed in any meaningful sense.

A search on Etymology Online reveals no results at all for a word pee referring to the letter. In addition, a search on Googlebooks for "How many pees in" yields no results. A search for "double pee" yeilds only one relevant result. However in that text, many of the other letters are spelled in ways not listed in any dictionary I have been able to reference - for example the letter I is spelled eye.

Even a search on Googlebooks for "the letter pee" only yielded five bona fide results, out of of which four results are in books printed since 2006 and one is from 1987.

My question therefore is what is the provenance for the spelling pee as used to represent the letter P? Has this spelling ever been used frequently enough for us to properly regard this as a standard spelling and what is the earliest known usage of this spelling of the word. Lastly, are there any alternative spellings of this word which have been in competition with this one?

  • I've never even heard of the idea that letters can be spelled anything but homoiconically (if that term is applicable). How is X spelled? Eks? – Dan Bron Mar 13 '17 at 17:25
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    While the title perhaps served its purpose in making me click on this question immediately, I'd suggest something more descriptive that pertains to the actual question / issue at hand. – MDHunter Mar 13 '17 at 17:26
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    @MDHunter, don't mess with success. That's a fantastic title. – fixer1234 Mar 13 '17 at 17:38
  • @DanBron According to Collins Scrabble, and also the Wikipedia article on "the English alphabet", X is spelled ex.. – davidlol Mar 13 '17 at 17:40
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Pee for the letter P can be found in 1612 in Thomas Dekker's If it be not good, the Diuel is in it:

Three Pees haue pepperd me, The Punck, the Pot, and Pipe of smoake.

This is a citation in the OED's entry for the letter P; however, of the 50-odd citations, the only pee.

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    Excellent. Exactly what I was after! – Araucaria Mar 15 '17 at 13:09
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OED does contain this:

pee, n.6

Pronunciation: Brit. /piː/, U.S. /pi/
Inflections: Plural unchanged, pees.
Origin: A variant or alteration of another lexical item. Etymon: English P.
Etymology: Representing a pronunciation of P (see P n. 10i).

That particular entry for pee refers to the British decimal currency: five pence is often referred to as "five pee". P 10i relates to using p for penny or pence.

If it's only become common with the introduction of decimal currency in Britain, then it would have started to occur in 1967 (when the first 5p and 10p coins were issued) in order to differentiate between the fivepence (5d) and tenpence (10d) of the pre-decimal currency.

It had certainly taken hold by the time the currency was actually changed on 15 February 1971, as shown by OED's earliest citation:

1971 Observer 14 Feb. 9/5 Everyone at the Decimal Currency Board has taken to calling new pence ‘pee’.

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