January 17, 2011

The origins of phrases

Phrases are fun. Each has a feel, a meaning and a story to it. I find them colorful and often wonder where they came from. It's more flavorful to use a phrase once you understand its full meaning.

For instance, in America when we say, "mind your P's and Q's," we mean the person should watch what he's doing and pay attention to the small details. (I just realized some younger readers might not even know the phrase; horrors!) Since I am a mad typist, I thought the most obvious origin for this phrase was that it was a caution for typists. After all, which fingers type P's and Q's? The pinkies of both hands have to reach high to hit them. This makes them arguably the hardest letters to type accurately. I assumed that was what the phrase was about. Simple, no?

But I was wrong. I tracked the meaning down in the early 1980s, in those wild, pre-internet days when you had to read books to learn things. Apparently this is a phrase that an English bar owner might use in the 17th century when speaking to a barmaid. It was a caution to remind the barmaid to record exactly what each patron had to drink. Keep your chits in order, in other words. Written without abbreviations, the phrase was, "mind your pints and quarts." I loved that.

However, Wikipedia has a slightly different explanation, and I don't like it at all. They say it referred to bartenders who were minding their customers' alcohol consumption -- i.e., minding their P's and Q's. So many pints or quarts, and presumably you were 86'd for the night. I don't like that at all. If that's true, all we can do with the phrase is tell our drunken friends to mind their P's and Q's when we're the designated driver. How dull. The phrase is permanently ruined for me. No, don't try to lessen the blow for me. This is it: I'm throwing it away.

Or at least, in light of all this, I may retreat to my original, ill-begotten thought that it was all about typewriter keys. Ah, it was all so simple then. Darn that Wikipedia!

Still, it's fun to learn these things. And I'll bet the next time you use the phrase, or hear it used, this knowledge will come to mind. I like that; it provides depth. Anyone else enjoy this stuff?


Artichoke Annie said...

I like your origin of P's and Q's - maybe you should submit it to Wikipedia. Who says there can be only one acceptable origin? On the other I just found myself using my right hand pinkie for the P, but alas I have subcombed to the use of my left ring finger for the Q. I think it's a combination of old age and an easier stroking keyboard.

writenow said...

That's okay. Just mind your P's and W's from now on and it'll all work out.