Posted by: Jack Henry | June 23, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Lo and Behold, It’s P’s and Q’s

Today I have two phrases some curious readers have asked about. The first is about the phrase “Mind your p’s and q’s.” The inquirer said that she thought the phrase was from the UK (yes, indeed), and that it referred to minding your pints and quarts of liquor. As the World Wide Words (sorry, this link is now blocked at JHA) says, there are several explanations for the phrase:

In the UK, the phrase means to mind one’s manners or to behave properly. This reflects its historical meaning. However, in the US, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can also mean to be alert, to be on one’s toes, to be on top form.

Many explanations have been advanced down the decades to explain this puzzling expression. It is said to be advice to a child learning its letters to be careful not to mix up the handwritten lower-case letters p and q, or similar advice to a printer’s apprentice, for whom the backward-facing metal type letters would be especially confusing. One has to wonder why p and q were singled out, when similar problems occur with b and d. Others have argued that, closely fitting the “mind your manners” sense, it might just have been an abbreviation of mind your pleases and thank-yous, a view advanced in particular by some dictionaries.

We may leave out of account more fanciful suggestions, such that it was an instruction from a French dancing master to be sure to perform the dance figures pieds and queues accurately, that it was an admonishment to seamen not to soil their navy pea-jackets with their tarred queues (their pigtails), or that it was jocular, or perhaps deadly serious, advice to a barman not to confuse the letters p and q on the tally slate, on which the letters stood for the pints and quarts consumed “on tick” [KC – “on credit”] by the patrons, even though men did indeed at one time consume beer by the quart.

To confuse the matter somewhat, we also have examples of a closely similar expression, P and Q or pee and kew. This was seventeenth-century slang and meant “highest quality”….

Investigations by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007, when revising the entry, turned up early examples of the use of Ps and Qs to mean learning the alphabet. The first is in a poem by Charles Churchill, published in 1763: “On all occasions next the chair / He stands for service of the Mayor, / And to instruct him how to use / His A’s and B’s, and P’s and Q’s.”

With that, the article concludes that learning the alphabet is the origin of the phrase.

The second phrase that someone asked about, is “lo and behold.” This, again, has its origin in the UK. tells us, as you probably know, that it is an explanation to “draw others attention to something…considered startling or important.”

The origin is straightforward:

The word ‘lo’ as used in this phrase is a shortening of ‘look’. So, lo and behold! has the meaning of look! – behold!. Lo in this and its other meaning, which is more akin to O!, has been in use since the first Millennium and appears in the epic poem Beowulf.

Lo and behold, there are your answers! Enjoy your day and continue to mind your P’s and Q’s. (Your letters—not your pints and quarts until you’re done for the day!)

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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