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There are few of us who at one time or another have not been admonished to "mind our P's and Q's," or in other words, to behave our best.  Oddly enough, "mind your P's and Q's" had nautical beginnings as a method of keeping books on the waterfront.

In the days of sail when Sailors were paid a pittance, seamen drank their ale in taverns whose keepers were willing to extend credit until payday.  Since many salts were illiterate, keepers kept a tally of pints and quarts consumed by each Sailor on a chalkboard behind the bar.  Next to each person's name, a mark was made under "P" for pint or "Q" for quart whenever a seaman ordered another draught.

On payday, each seaman was liable for each mark next to his name, so he was forced to "mind his P's and Q's" or he would get into financial trouble.  To ensure an accurate count by unscrupulous keepers, Sailors had to keep their wits and remain somewhat sober.  Sobriety usually ensured good behavior, hence the meaning of "mind your P's and Q's."

Posted on Saturday, April 3, 2004 5:14 PM Day Job , & Etc. | Back to top


Comments on this post: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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Thanks! - everyone at the office thinks I know everything! (it's an age thing) Now I can pretend I really do!
Left by lillie on Oct 21, 2004 9:40 AM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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And what time frame would this have been in?
Thank you?
Left by Curious? on Dec 12, 2004 9:14 AM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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Curious: Likely in the 1600s and 1700s.
Left by Mark on Dec 12, 2004 12:16 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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thanks,
My son was asking the meaning. This is something his teacher says.
Left by Barb on Mar 23, 2005 9:45 AM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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thanks. my boyfriend says this all the time and gets mad at me when i ask what it actually stands for (because he doesn't know)... i'll have to let him know.
Left by Kelly on Apr 24, 2005 3:12 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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Actually, this is only one of many explanations. The one I think most likely is that it was an admonition to typesetters not to mix up the "p" and "q" blocks, as a block that looks like a lower-case "p" from the front, would print a "q" on paper, and visa versa. Others say it was simply short for "please" and "thank you", which would make since because the phrase means to mind your manners. But the drunken sailor story is a good one too!
Left by Ben on May 11, 2005 5:08 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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This http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxmindyo.html actually lists several possibilities, as well as one quoted from a dictionary.
Left by cesoid on Jun 04, 2006 6:28 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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Your explanation didn't have the ring of truth to me, sailors didn't have paydays.
They were paid once when they made port, as a fraction of the ship's company.
Left by Max Ackerman on Oct 03, 2006 7:04 AM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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@Max: Ah, but crews were not held to a specific ship. They were unemployed between trips and got a portion of their voyage wages when they signed on to their next ship -- their payday.
Left by Mark on Oct 03, 2006 6:04 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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The printing arguement for the derivation of the expression seems the weakest to me. The letters 'p' and 'q' are used far less frequently in the english language than the letters 'b' and 'd' (just look at the lower value awarded in Scrabble to 'b' and 'd'). I would have thought if printing was the origin then the idiom would have developed as "Mind your b's and d's" as they would be more likely to be mistakenly used for each other.
Left by Pete on Aug 19, 2007 8:05 AM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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To say the origin of this phrase is nautical is a fanciful notion. In fact no one really knows for sure the origin of this old phrase. Several have been submitted for the approval of both the layman and the scholar and some have been disproven while others can niether be disproven nor substantiated. In my humble opinion, the most likely origin is twofold. Since it is generally accepted that the phrase means to be on one's best behavior, it can be reasoned that it was originally advice for a child. Since learning to wirite, children often confused letters p and q, it was often corrected. Of course this can also be said of b and d which brings in the second part of the origin. Children were also often taught to be polite and quiet in the presence of adults. Polite and quiet just happen to correspond with p and q, so the phrase grew from there. To mind one's p's and q's is not only to be on one's best behavior, but also to be mindful of one's actions so as not to make an embarrasing public mistake.
Peace, all.
Left by Deke101 on Oct 09, 2008 5:59 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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The printing press explanation seems to hold the most weight because the p and q were not as widely used in the english language than the b or d, so the person working the press had less practice with placing them. This resulted in higher frequency in character placement error with p and q.
Left by Dave on Mar 22, 2009 12:38 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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When I was going to high school the term was thrown at us in typing class.
P and Q being the further reach for each pinkie finger on a common QWERTY keyboard.
Left by Ed on Jun 24, 2009 12:29 PM

# re: Nautical Terminology: Mind Your P's and Q's
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I disagree with all of the submitted explanations. The truth is that British Navy press gangs were authorized by Parliment to go ashore in English costal towns and "recruit" men to serve in the navy by offerring them a shilling. If they took it, they were in. There was such a shortage of recruits that this was interpreted to mean that if the potential recruit voluntarily let the shilling touch his person then he was in the navy. So the press gangs, dressed in street clothing would go into a town's taverns and pubs and would buy their patrons a pint or quart of ale and would drop a shilling in the mug. So when the patron drank it down then shilling would touch his lips and he was in the navy! This deceptive practice was causing the pub owners to lose customers. So they started warning customers that the navy people were there by saying "mind your p's and q's." They even went to the mug makers and asked them to make the mugs with glass bottoms so a customer could see if there was a shilling in it.
Left by Mike Pener on Feb 16, 2018 12:21 PM

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