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My friend and I were carpooling to work this morning when we passed a dead skunk on the road. Like most people, we immediately pinched our noses and expressed our disgust. She said a word I would phonetically spell “Pyewwww!” I, however, always go for the “P.U.” with two distinctive syllables.

Obviously this is not formal English, but is one of these more “correct” than the other? Are the phrases even related? As a sidenote, is this word becoming obsolete? Seems I don’t hear it nearly as much as I used to.

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  • OALD gives the spelling and pronunciation I'm familiar with: << pooh exclamation ([used] especially [in] British English) BrE /puː/ ; NAmE /puː/ >> – Edwin Ashworth May 5 '17 at 9:32
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    It’s an interjection, and like many other interjections, it’s spelt in dozens of different ways. P.U. is not one I’ve seen before, and I doubt I’d recognise it; and pew has the disadvantage of being a word with a very different meaning. But pyewww, pyuuuuuww, pyeouwwgh and many other varieties are easily recognisable. I’m not aware of any particularly established way of spelling it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 5 '17 at 9:36
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    I said this as a kid all the time, for example, "P.U. -- that stinks!" I never wrote it, but clearly I conceptualized it as the two letters." It makes me think of the cartoon about the skunk, Pepe Le Pew, but I don't think it's connected. Now, I might spell it "pee-yew". I also wonder if it's from another language like the German "pfui" to English "phooey" as an interjection to say "darn it". – user227547 May 5 '17 at 10:12
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    @Palizsche: I think it's clearly connected to Pepe Le Pew. The Warner cartoonists knew how to make puns. (E.g., Pepe made his first appearance in Odor-able Kitty.) – Peter Shor May 5 '17 at 10:34
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pugh interjection \a strongly articulated p-sound sometimes trilled & sometimes with a vowel sound following; usually read as ˈpü\ Definition of pugh —used to express disgust or disdain

from Merriam-Webster

cf. a previous question: The word "pew" (P.U., etc.) and positive or neutral connotation

Many people, myself included, grew up thinking this might be spelled P.U. This is something kids in the United States used to say all the time as in "P.U., that smells awful!" It shows up that way in the Urban Dictionary.

According to this grammar blog the OED has the main listing under pew.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the exclamation has been spelled many different ways since it first showed up in 1604: “pue,” “peuh,” “peugh,” “pyoo,” and “pew.”

p.u. An exclamtion denoting the presence a vile or unpleasant odor. "P.U.," either use deodorant or keep your arms down!

I knew that B.O. stood for body odor and I think I thought P.U. might stand for something, but didn't know what. Now, I wonder if it isn't related to pfui from German which got anglicized as phooey -- also an interjection.

Others may know whether this has anything to do with the cartoon character, Pepe Le Pew, a skunk. I have an association to this as well, but can't find any evidence. I think it mostly likely that the creators were making a pun on an existing expression and spelling it pew for what I found as pugh. This seems to be chiefly an oral expression that people spell in different ways.

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My assumption is that the terms are onomatopoeia for what happens when someone encounters a really malodorous aroma. He will generally scrunch up his face, hold his hand over his nose and mouth, and exhale while turning his head to one side. The sound that comes out would generally be "yew" or "few" or perhaps "phew".

You get the more elaborate sounds when someone seeks to intentionally exaggerate this reaction, perhaps starting with a stronger "ph" sound ahead of "phew" and then drawing out that sound. But this would be even more idiosyncratic than the unexaggerated sound. And of course, different cultures would develop different, but very much similar, expressions.

I'll note that terms like "phooey" likely derive separately but with a similar arc. To express disgust it's common to blow out through one's lips -- kind of a "raspberry" without the buzz, or a spit without the juice -- and this sound would translate as "phoo" or some such, then be elaborated from there.

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