Mind Your Ps and Qs

I’m known around here as a first-class mangler of phrases and clichés.

For some reason, I have a really tough time with clichés and idioms. I’m always getting them wrong. Take “pedal to the metal”, for instance. For years, I’d say “Petal to the metal”. It rhymes, after all!

So this morning I woke up thinking, “A to Z Challenge. Hmmm. I need a P and I need a Q. Oh, wait! How about ‘mind your Ps and Qs’?”

But I decided I’d better ask my husband first, to make sure.

“Is it ‘Mind your Ps and Qs’?”

He nodded. “Yes, that’s it.”

“I don’t get it, though. Doesn’t it mean, behave yourself? Mind your manners? That sort of thing?”


“Hmmm. Well, I get the P. That would be “please”, right? So what does the Q mean?”

We were both puzzled, so I turned to Google.

As it turns out (according to The Phrase Finder), no-one knows for sure where the phrase originated. But here are the most common suggestions:

  1. Mind your pints and quarts. (Pub talk.)
  2. Advice to children or printers’ apprentices to avoid confusing lowercase Ps and Qs.
  3. Mind your pea (jacket) and queue (wig).
  4. Mind your pieds (feet) and queues (wigs). (When you’re dancing, that is.)
  5. Mind your pleases and thank-yous.

It seems to me the last one should have resulted in “mind your Ps and Ts”, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m not exactly the world’s expert in these kinds of things.

And, as The Phrase Finder says about number 2, wouldn’t “mind your Bs and Ds” make more sense in that context?

I’m sure there are a lot more potential origins out there.

I have a fascination with clichés and commonly used phrases. Probably because I can never get them right.

Which is not really something a writer should admit to, I guess. (On the other hand, you’re not likely to find clichés in my writing, since I know I’m sure to get them wrong. That’s got to be a good thing, right?)

12 thoughts on “Mind Your Ps and Qs

  1. Julie @ Read Handed

    I’ve always heard that it came from the days when people would carry liquids around in glass pint and quart containers. Since the containers were glass, people walking around with them (delivery people?) would have to be very careful to avoid clanking them too hard and breaking them. Sort of like the first suggestion you listed.

  2. J.D.M.

    That is a curiosity. I always wondered the same thing and turned up similar results…I do like the first one, however, so I’ll go with that. When I read it, I think of “mind your own business.” 😀

    I think I may actually have a book buried somewhere that’s all about the origin of such idioms and cliches. Maybe I ought to dig it out…

  3. Janel

    I think you can incorporate your “problem” into a cozy mystery MC! They all need to have a quirk or two, why not flubbing cliches?

  4. Joe

    I often check the origins of phrases or expressions, too.

    But I shouldn’t bother. I seldom believe what I read, because the explanations are too tidy, and the evolution of language is anything but.

    If the reference books would say, “We believe the origins of this expression reach to Franklin Park, a pastor in London, England, circa 1696. Park liked to drink, and frequently did so prior to Sunday service. Pastor Park would often deliver nigh incomprehensible sermons, slurring his speech, misusing words, and when memory failed, creating words and phrases of his own. We believe Park is responsible for 30 percent of the idiomatic expressions that entered the English language at this time. But we don’t know. We’re guessing, really.”

    That I would buy.

    So scrabble your expressions and fumble your cliches, Belle. You’re pollinating the language with words and phrases wonderful and new. We should all be so bold.

    Just mind the Merlot before Sunday service.

    q: quarter ’til midnight

  5. Megan M.

    I just had a flash of brilliance about P’s and Q’s as it is supposed to be referring to “please” and “thank you.” The “P’s” is obvious – we’ve all heard a little kid who says “peas” rather than “please.” As for the “Q’s” here’s where the brilliance comes in – when you say “thank you” mashed together “thankyou” it kind of sounds like “than-Q” so that must be how “P’s and Q’s” could stand for “please and thank yous.” Right? I’m either a genius or I read that somewhere. Probably the second one.

  6. Beth F

    I always heard it came from hand-setting print because it was easy to mix up the p’s and q’s (print was set in mirror image-style). No matter the origins, great way to get past your p’s and q’s!!!

  7. Melissa

    I’ve always heard that it came from #1, the pints and quarts thing, when people were walking through a pub or carrying their drinks from the bar to the table. Interesting though.

  8. Bella

    New to your blog but thought I’d comment and say that like you, I am fascinated by clichés but often mix them up as well. However, the mix up always provides the opportunity to have a good laugh. My son mixes up words and that can also have humorous results. Great post!

  9. Dorte H

    I am sure my Danish idioms are just perfect (and you can´t contradict me, can you?), but in English I often mix up things like muddled/muddied waters and spend an amazing time checking what I really mean to say :)

  10. Barbara

    My husband mixes up both sayings and pronunciation. The one that comes to mind at this moment is the expression “Dog eat dog” society or whatever. Dave says, “Doggie dog.” Sounds nicer, doesn’t it?

  11. Shannon Lawrence

    Interesting, I’ve heard the origin of the pints and quarts, as well, but have no idea what it’s really from. My mom also mangles cliches and sayings, which drives her crazy!

    Good luck with the rest of the A to Z Challenge!


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