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What are the Origins of the Phrase "Mind Your P's and Q's"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase “mind your P's and Q's” is often used to remind people to be careful, and to remain on their best behavior. It appears to have emerged around the 1600s, and the exact origins are actually a bit murky. There are a number of theories to explain the roots of the idiom, although these theories are of varying levels of believability. Ultimately, the history behind this phrase may never truly be known.

One of the most likely theories about “mind your P's and Q's” is related to the pints and quarts served at bars. Many bars and pubs traditionally kept track of customer tabs on a large slate board, adding up the P's and Q's at the end of the night. A smart customer would keep an eye on this list to ensure that the bartender was not fudging the numbers. Some bartenders have also theorized that bar staff may have been admonished to mind their P's and Q's, by keeping track of how many drinks they dispensed over the course of the night.

In this sense, one would also need to remain relatively sober to keep a sharp eye out. This sobriety would, of course, result in a generally better standard of behavior. This explanation for the phrase is one of the most widely accepted, since it seems like the most rational.

Some printers have suggested that the term may be related to typesetting. Movable type is cast backward so that it will print the right way, and lower case P's and Q's are easily confused in the type case, since the letters are mirror images of each other. Of course, the same could be said of lower case B's and D's, and the phrase is not “mind your B's and D's.”

A young child who is learning to read and write may also be reminded to “mind your P's and Q's,” as the lower case letters can be confused. This explanation is also weak, however, since P's and Q's appear far less commonly than B's and D's in writing, and surely people who are learning how to read could mistake these letters as well. Furthermore, spelling things correctly has no clear link with good behavior, and since many people use the term in the sense of behaving, these explanations both leave something to be desired.

Some people also say that “mind your P's and Q's” is a chess term, as in “mind your pawns and queens.” One would certainly want to keep track of both pawns and queens, as these pieces can be crucial in a chess game. However, there is not a clear and obvious link between playing chess well and behaving well, so this explanation seems a bit weak.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon281362 — On Jul 23, 2012

"Mind your P's and Q's" is taken from the early days of the printing press. When typesetters has to put every letter into a quoin backward to be inked and then later pressed on paper. Because this was being done backward, lower case P's and Q's would sometimes be mistaken for one another, thus the paste up people were told to mind your P's and Q's. It meant to be careful not to mix them up. If you did mix them up, you would have to remove all the letters and redo the whole page.

By Sierra02 — On May 11, 2011

When we were kids and company was coming over, our parents warned us to be polite and don’t ask questions. P = polite and Q = questions. We usually had to stay in our rooms, which was okay with us because their conversations were always boring anyway.

Now that I’m grown up with children of my own, I certainly can understand the, “don’t ask questions” that my parents used. Children oftentimes are brutally honest which can be quite embarrassing in front of your adult friends. Even worse, in front of someone you’re hoping to build an intimate relationship with. Don’t ask!

By bfree — On May 10, 2011

I never heard of those reasons for that phrase before, though they all have some logic to them. I grew up believing P’s and Q’s meant behave yourself and mind your manners or else. I think most of the world understands it as a behavioral phrase.

But it seems that it’s aimed at adults and any profession could have a meaning for P’s and Q’s. Surgeons might be reminded to have a slow and steady hand, or something of that nature. Accountants might be told to watch for speed and accuracy. Teachers, of course, would use it for the same reason as parents except in a more threatening tone. This is an interesting article. It could be a fun subject for a term paper.

By MsClean — On May 07, 2011

@anon67491 – I always thought it was about being polite too. It’s a phrase we heard a lot growing up in our house. It’s funny I can remember my grandmother telling my sister and I to mind our P’s and Q’s every Sunday before church. She always gave us a piece of Juicy Fruit gum on the way home for our good behavior, whether we behaved or not. I think she only did it out of gratitude just for getting up and going with her. I don’t use that phrase much on my own children. It’s more “mind your manners” with them.

By anon67491 — On Feb 24, 2010

I've always taken the phrase to mean "be polite", as in "don't forget your Please and Thank You's", which was perhaps shortened to "mind your P's and Q's". Furthermore, it is a phrase normally directed at young children, and perhaps the shortening comes from imitating their mode of speech (e.g. my 2-year old son can't say these words properly yet and says "Peas" and "ten-Q").

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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