The Word of the Day site suggests this phrase has more possible origins than any other -- and nobody knows just what to believe. The only thing everyone can agree upon is that the idiom was first cited by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1779 with the meaning of watching your step and being polite.
One simple explanation is that it's a childish abbreviation for minding your "pleases" and "thank yous." Considering how often kids are told to "mind your Ps and Qs" with the goal of being more polite, this explanation makes sense.
Two popular theories revolve around the mirror-image quality of the two letters. The phrase was recorded in 1830 as meaning "to learn one's letters." It was aimed at children learning to hand-write the lowercase letters p and q, which are quite similar. Another explanation along the same lines comes from the world of printing. Typesetters used blocks of type that were mirror images of the letters, so it would be easy to mix up lowercase p and q. This origin would give "mind your Ps and Qs" a connotation of being careful and paying sharp attention.
Another oft-mentioned source of the phrase is old pubs where beer and ale was served in pints and quarts. The barkeeper tracked patrons' drinking totals by marking "P" for pints and "Q" for quarts. Both the barkeeper and the drinker would want to keep careful track of those Ps and Qs so they knew what the final bill would be. Also, the drinker might want to pay attention to how much he drank so as to keep his own behavior under control.
World Wide Words notes that this puzzling and quirky idiom has inspired some fanciful explanations. In the 17th century, the expression "P and Q" meant "prime quality," which might have influenced the Ps and Qs phrase. Some suggest the saying came from a French dancing master's instructions to perform the dance figures pieds and queues properly. Or it could be an admonishment to sailors to keep their navy peacoats clean around their tarred queues or pigtails. But these derivations seem pretty far-fetched. Source(s):
Way back in the day, beer/mead was served in pints and quarts. The tavern wench had to pay attention to detail and mind her(p)ints & (q)uarts so she got paid correctly. Today mind your p's & q's means to pay attention to detail. The expression 'mind you p's and q's , meaning be careful and your words and behavior, dates back many centuries. Various sources come up with various explanations: The least likely says that the 'p' refers to the jacket once worn by men and now surviving only in the navy peag jacket. In the 16th and 17th centuries often wore their hair bound into queues or pigtails, often powdered. Thus a wife might tell her husband to 'mind your p and q. meaning to keep his queue from soiling the collar of his pea jacket.
A more likely and more lusty explanation takes us to the pubs of the same period. There it was the practice to record a drinker's tab by chalking it on a blackboard under 2 headings: Q for quart and P for pint. Obvious each drinker (Morris' dictionary of etymolgy says each tosspot) had best mind his p's and q's or the bill would greatly favor the house
A third (and preferred) explanation is less colorful: Try writing the small p and the small q side by side. The letters are identical excpt that the upper portions are reversed. So the odds are that the expression mind your p's and q's originated with generations of writing teachers instucting their students to take special care in forming these 2 letters. WOW - I'm sure glad you asked that - I wondered that myself. the version I am most aware of is that sailors on shore leave needed to mind their Ps and Qs (pints and quarts) in order to make sure they had enough money to pay for their drinking sprees. A sailor who couldn't pay would be tossed in jail and then lose his livelihood (especially if the ship set sail before he could gain release from the jail), all for the price of a few drinks. So, minding his Ps and Qs meant a sailor's paying attention to his bar tab so he knew when to say when.
It definitely does NOT mean the possibility of casting type wrong on a newspaper page. the only way a p could be misplaced would be upside down, which would make it look like a d. a q would look like a b. so the phrase would have been mind your b's d's p's and q's, which would be too complicated to remember. It's an old Irish pub (bar) phrase: "Mind your Pints (Ps) and Quarts (Qs)." Watch your alcohol consumption. That's how it originated, anyway Pints and quarts. Bars used to sell drinks in pints and quarts. When someone was drinking a little too much, the bartender would say, "Mind your P's and Q's!" That's how the phrase got started. Wow. Who the hell would drink by the quart? I'd be more inclined to believe the printer story.
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