Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Episode 122: Mind Your P's and Q's Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 122: Mind Your Ps and Qs

Record Date: August 28, 2021

Air Date: September 1, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week will be prim and proper by minding our Ps and Qs. 


To be on one’s P’s and Q’s - as in the letter P and the letter Q - is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as


To be on one’s best behavior; to be at one’s best, on top form

End Quote

To mind one’s P’s and Q’s, or alternately To watch one’s P’s and Q’s - is defined by the OED as


To be careful or particular in one’s words or behavior, to mind one’s manners

End Quote

So these two phrases: To be on your P’s and Q’s and To mind your P’s and Q’s both have to do with your words or your behavior and acting appropriately.

The first attestation, from the Oxford English Dictionary, is from Thomas Dekker’s play Satiro--mastix; or, The Untrussing of the humorous poet · 1st edition, 1602 (1 vol.)

Here is the line, as quoted by Gary Martin on


Afinius:'s your cloak; I think it rains too.

Horace: Hide my shoulders in't.

Afinius: 'Troth, so thou'dst need; for now thou art in thy Pee and Kue: thou hast such a villanous broad back...

End Quote

In this case, the letter P is spelled P-E-E, and the letter Q is spelled K-U-E, which could mean they were not the letters, but rather something else. Or it could mean it was simply a phonetic spelling of the letters P and Q. 

We know we say this phrase as early as 1602, but we don’t know *why* we say it. And… how did this phrase come about? Well… that is a bit of a mystery. Truth is, we just don’t know the real origin story. But there are many out there. And we will spend this episode talking about the possible origin stories and debunking a few of them along the way.

First up...

Pleases and Thank Yous

Paul Anthony Jones, writing for Mental Floss in 2015, noted this may be the most widely held explanation:



“P’s” sounds a bit like “please,” “q’s” sounds a bit like “thank yous,” so to mind your p’s and q’s ultimately means “to mind your good manners.” It’s a neat idea, but it’s not a particularly reliable one. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough textual evidence to support it, which suggests this is probably a relatively recent bit of folk etymology, based on the modern interpretation of the phrase p’s and q’s.

End Quote

Side note: You may also know Paul Anthony Jones from his work on Twitter under the handle, @HaggardHawks. Or from his books, The Cabinet of Calm, The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities, Word Drops, and at least 5 more.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s seems to agree with Mr Jones, which makes sense since Paul Anthony Jones is an expert in his own right:

From the OED


The expression is unlikely to be a shortening of pleases and thank yous , since this is apparently not attested independently as a phrase before the 20th century

End Quote

Pea-coat and Queue

A Pea-coat, originally called a Pee, P-E-E, is defined by the OED as


A man's coat or jacket of coarse fabric, worn esp. in the 16th cent.

End Quote

And for queue, the OED notes:


A long plait of hair worn hanging down at the back, from the head or from a wig; a pigtail. Now historical or archaic.

End Quote

Paul Anthony Jones, again in Mental Floss, notes:


Both Dekker’s unusual spellings (pee and kue) and his equally unusual phrasing (“in your p’s and q’s”) has led to suggestions that the original p’s and q’s might have been items of clothing—namely, a sailor’s pea-coat or pea-jacket (a kind of thick, loose-fitting overcoat) and a queue or queue-peruke (a long plait of hair that was once a popular fashion accessory among high-ranking naval officers). But how does a sailor’s pea-coat and a naval officer’s wig give us a phrase meaning “mind your manners”? That’s a good question, and it’s not one that can be sufficiently answered—unless, of course, we’ve only got things half right…

End Quote

Which leads us to...

Pied and Queue

In French, the word that sounds like Pied means feet, and the word that sounds like Queue means wigs.

Gary Martin of notes:


Mind your pieds (feet) and queues (wigs) … is suggested to have been an instruction given by French dancing masters to their charges. This has the benefit of placing the perruque in the right context - as long as we accept the phrase as being originally French. However, there's no reason to suppose it is from France and no version of the phrase exists in French.

End Quote

Paul Anthony Jones seems to agree, saying:


There’s no record of pieds and queues in any other context in English, and queue hairpieces really didn’t come into fashion in England until the early 18th century—that’s more than 100 years after Dekker’s play.

End Quote

Pints and Quarts

Here is my personal favorite origin story -even though it almost certainly isn’t true due to timing. But I’ve long had a dream of owning a European style pub - not running it, just owning it - so I can sit amongst the rich dark woods and cozy atmosphere with a well-poured pint or a good whiskey, neat. But this has nothing to do with our phrase, so allow me to get back on track…

Gary Martin notes:


Mind your pints and quarts ... is suggested as deriving from the practice of chalking up a tally of drinks in English pubs (on the slate). Publicans had to make sure to mark up the quart drinks as distinct from the pint drinks. This explanation is widely repeated but there's little to support it, apart from the fact that pint and quart begin with P and Q.

End Quote

Paul Anthony Jones


In 1607, five years after the publication of Satiromastix, Dekker published another play called Westward Hoe. It contains the line, “at her p. and q. neither Marchantes [merchant’s] daughter, Aldermans wife, young countrey Gentle-woman, nor Courtiers Mistris [mistress], can match her.” Same author, same phrase. But very different spelling.

The Oxford English Dictionary points out that the fact that Dekker uses periods after the p. and q. in this line suggests that they might originally have been abbreviations—in which case the pee and kue he used five years earlier might just have been phonetic spellings... But if p. and q. is really an abbreviation, what does it stand for?

End Quote

And as Mr. Jones noted, the OED says:


The suggestion that (it) referred originally to a landlord confusing pints and quarts (of beer) on a customer's account can be neither substantiated nor dismissed

End Quote

Perhaps David Mikkelson, writing for has the most in-your-face reasoning why the pints and quarts theory isn’t correct…


At the time the saying became part of the English lexicon, beer wasn’t vended in pubs by the pint or quart. Instead, it was drawn from kegs, with patrons charged by the glass or tankard. Vendors therefore would not have utilized chalked tote boards scrawled with p’s for “pints” and q’s for “quarts” in an effort to keep track of who owed for what.

Yet the chalked tote board theory fails on something even simpler than that: A quart is equal to two pints. Even if there ever had been a barkeep daft enough or advanced enough to be selling beer by these particular volumetric measures, his apocryphal chalkboard would have been festooned either with endless rows of lowercase p’s or with groupings of the common stick-and-slash notation, with one mark representing a pint and two a quart.

End Quote

But back to Paul Anthony Jones, what did he mean when he said:


But if p. and q. is really an abbreviation, what does it stand for?

End Quote

Well… that’s where our next origin story comes from…

Prime Quality

David Mikkelson, again, writing for, noted:


...if a hobbyist’s (rather than a etymologist’s) opinion can be entertained for a moment, it’s possible a 1612 print sighting yields part of the solution: “Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true: And looke, you Rogue, that it be Pee and Kew.”

The context in which that line appears makes it clear that “Pee and Kew” is understood by the book’s audience to mean “of the highest quality.” Throughout the saying’s various surfacings across the centuries, twin themes of quality and good behavior emerge. If “p’s and q’s” began its linguistic life as a colloquial term for “of marked superiority,” the saying could have over time transferred from a statement about the sterling nature of a physical item (such as a quart of booze) to a statement about behavioral traits the very best people should strive to cultivate, then into an admonition to be mindful of one’s comportment when in the society of others.

End Quote

Back to Paul Anthony Jones:


According to the The English Dialect Dictionary, p and q means “prime quality”—but that explanation doesn’t quite account for the “and” that separates them, and so is probably another later invention.

End Quote

He goes on to note:


The “pints and quarts” theory is plausible, but even the OED admits that it can “neither be substantiated nor dismissed.” Perhaps the most likely solution, then, is one of the simplest.

End Quote

Hand writing or typesetting

David Mikkelson, writing for, noted:


“...there is only one true pair of mirror image letters in the Roman alphabet that could trip kids up, and it’s not ‘p’ and ‘q,’ but rather ‘b’ and ‘d.’ In terms of how it’s taught to kids who are learning to make their letters, lowercase ‘q’ has a little upturned tail at the base of its descender... While people may omit that little tail in their handwriting as they get older, at the point in their lives where orthography is taught to them, it’s part of the written representation of the letter. If “mind your p’s and q’s” had as its origin an instruction to children to be mindful of the trap laid by two fully reversible letters, it would have been “Mind your b’s and d’s.”

End Quote 

However, I found several examples of english script from the late 1500s and early 1600s that definitely have similar p’s and q’s. I’ll have links in the show notes that you can check out, which are always available for free on our website, There are examples from:

Brigham Young University’s Script tutorial 

Examples of English Script 1500 and 1600 LDS Church 

Letterwriting in Renaissance England from the Folger Shakespeare Library

So while I don’t necessarily disagree with Mikkelson’s overall point, I do think the seemingly faulty research detracts from it.

Similarly, this origin story is listed as advice to printers’ apprectinces to avoid confusion with the metal type lowercase. 

Gary Martin, writing for, noted


I've never heard any suggestion that anyone should 'mind their Ds and Bs' though, even though that makes just as much sense and has the added benefit of rhyming, which would have made it a more attractive slogan. Nevertheless, the fact that handmade paper was an expensive commodity and that the setting of type in early presses was very time consuming makes the printing story a strong candidate. The fact that type had to be set upside down and backwards made the need for a warning to be careful doubly appropriate.

End Quote 

The Oxford English Dictionary notes:


A common suggestion is that the phrase referred originally to the difficulty which a child beginning to read has in distinguishing the lower-case letters p and q (or alternatively, the difficulty encountered by a typesetter, who will have to recognize these letters back to front); … However, the chronology of the senses would argue against this, and no such connotation is evident in the earliest quotations.

End Quote

Still, Merriam Webster seems to think this is the most likely candidate:


P’s and Q’s, from the phrase mind one's p's and q's, alluding to the difficulty a child learning to write has in distinguishing between p and q

End Quote

Back to Paul Anthony Jones in Mental Floss:


There is at least some evidence to support the theory that the p’s and q’s you’re being told to mind are nothing more than the letters of the alphabet. The OED, for instance, cites a half dozen examples of the phrase p’s and q’s being used in an extended sense to mean essentially “your ABCs”, but problematically the earliest reference they’ve so far found in this context only dates back to 1763, whereas Dekker was writing in the early 1600s.

Not only that, but Q is one of the least used letters of the alphabet—presumably a child (or a typesetter, for that matter) is much more likely to confuse more common letters of the alphabet, like d and b or t and f than they are p and q? Why would that become the established expression? Despite these reservations, however, this final theory looks to be the most likely explanation on offer—at least, until another theory comes along…

End Quote

The truth is, we just don’t know. Merriam Webster seems to be the only reliable source that makes any claim, and their statement isn’t exactly a resounding validation.

But you know who does earn our resounding validation? Those who make Bunny Trails happen every week! 

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

Here are a few examples from US newspapers that give us a few insights into what people of the time thought the origins might be...

This shows us the phrase was clearly still being used in the 19th and 20 century, and most people probably knew what it meant. But I only found a handful of example in all of the newspapers on the Library of Congress’ site that did anything other than give origin stories or definitions. 

Let’s fast forward to a couple of uses more recently…

Here’s a 2007 song from UK Grime artist Kano.

P’s & Q’s


Cos I'm on my P's and Q's

That's why I make more P's than you's

Even when I'm in 3s and 2s, slip?

There ain't no reason to…

End Quote

A little later in the song he sings:


If you see me and I ain't with my crew

Believe I'm on my P's and Q's

Even on my own tune

That's the difference between me and you

End Quote 

Next up I want to look at a couple of usages from this year. So I turned to Twitter, the social media cess pool that we just can’t get out of…

Sweet, but no, it almost certainly is not the origin of the phrase. Though it is the first possible origin story I heard when I asked my 15 year old where they thought it came from, so your Child 2 is in good company, Jonathan.

He’s rocking LA Dodgers gear in a series of 4 pictures here, so clearly getting ready for the Major League Baseball All Star Game later that day.

Wrap up...

Long time listeners of the show know we aren’t always able to pin down where a phrase came into the language. With this one, we generally know when it started being used, but what we can’t figure out is how. 

Were they similar uses of like-sounding phrases that all got jumbled in the longness of time?

It makes me think of the phrase Zoomers, now. This was a generational term for Gen Z, a group of folks born between the mid to late 1990s and the early 2010s. But based on available evidence, and depending on what survives, it is possible people 200 years from now will think we called this group Zoomers because of the pandemic and the rise of communities around video conferencing platforms like Zoom. 

And that’s what I wonder about P’s and Q’s. How many contemporary uses did this have before ending up as just all one phrase -  minding ones P’s and Q’s. And the truth is… we may never know.



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Words belong to their users.

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