Mind your p's and q's. The composing type angle.

Posted by Jim on April 30, 2002

In Reply to: mind your p's and q's posted by R. Berg on April 28, 2002

: : : :
: : : : I heard it stould for mind your punctuation and quotes

: : : That's a new one. From the archives:

: : : There have been several theories posted on Phrase Finder about "minding your P's and Q's." To mind your Ps and Qs is to be careful; cautious. The Ps here are said to be pints and the Qs to be quarts. The publican "chalks up" or "puts on the slate" the drinks supplied to customers; they must be aware of how much they have drunk or their bills will be unexpectedly large.

: : : An alternative view is that P derives from the French pied=foot and the Q comes from queue=tail(of a wig) and that the whole saying is based on 18th century court etiquette.

: : : Advice to a child learning its letters to be careful not to mix up the handwritten lower-case letters p and q. Similar advice to a printer's apprentice, for whom the backward-facing metal type letters would be especially confusing.

: : : An abbreviation of mind your please's and thank-you's.

: : : Instructions from a French dancing master to be sure to perform the dance figures pieds and queues accurately.

: : : An admonishment to seamen not to soil their navy pea-jackets with their tarred queues, that is, their pigtails.

: : : There was once an expression P and Q, often written pee and kew, which was a seventeenth-century colloquial expression for "prime quality". This later became a dialect expression (the English Dialect Dictionary reports it in Victorian times from Shropshire and Herefordshire).

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: : : OED2 has a citation from Rowlands' Knave of Harts of 1612:
: : : "Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true: And looke, you Rogue, that it be Pee and Kew."
: : : Nobody is really sure what either P or Q stood for. To say they're the initials of "Prime Quality" seems to be folk etymology, because surely that would make "PQ" rather than "P and Q".

: : I like the one that it is derived from the printing industry as a suggestion to an apprentice to be careful where the danger of confusing lowercase "p" and "q" was increased because typesetters had to view the typeset text backwards.

: Why do we not have a saying "Mind your b's and d's"? That would fit the typesetter's task just as well, with the advantage of rhyming.

Reusable type is stored in a wooden storage tray called a case. A case is usually organized with small case type on the left and upper case type on the right. Cases are designed with various compartment sizes and positions to accomodate frequently used letters. Cases of similar layout are called styles. Since compartments were normally not marked with the letter stored, printers memorized a given style in order to efficiently pick type from the case.

A common case style is a California two thirds case or shortened, the California case. In a California case, the compartments for lower case p and q are next to each other on the lower left side.

See members.aol.com/ typecases/tdjcase.htm

A composing stick is a tool used to hand pick and set type. Type is set both backwards AND upside down in a composing stick. So a p and q appear quite similar, especially when holding the stick with the left hand while picking and setting inky type with the right hand in the hot, stuffy, solvent saturated, dimly light, composing alcove found in most old print shops. Given the lousy working conditions and the intimate proximity of p's and q's in the case, two types of errors can occur when picking type: 1. The type is selected from the wrong compartment and; 2. The type is restocked in the wrong slot after use. I've had both experiences. Since replacing a letter in a block of type (discovered after a rolled proof)is a little messy once it is out of the stick, it is best to watch your p's and q's to avoid the issue entirely.

Also, the lower case b and d are seperated by one slot. This seperation lowers the frequency of miss-picking, miss-restocking, and, perhaps, usage of the phrase "missing your b's and d's.