P's and Q's points and questions

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Mon Apr 20 13:30:02 UTC 2009

On the OED March 2009 draft revision on P's and Q's. The etymology, after
"Origin unknown," gives "The variant p. and q. (with points) in quot. 1607 at
sense 1a suggests that the expression may perhaps have originated as a graphic
abbreviation or was perceived as such at an early stage."

1607 T. DEKKER & J. WEBSTER West-ward Hoe II. i. sig. B4v, At her p. and q.
neither Marchantes Daughter, Aldermans Wife, young countrey Gentlewoman, nor
Courtiers Mistris, can match her.

But, in context, this passage (editions at G Books) is about her orderly
handwriting of all the letters, and all the letters appear with points. The
others are not abbreviations (such guesses attested late), so why might this
one be? The letters mentioned before are all upper case. Only letter v.
(in one
edition) afterward is lower case. It is remarked: "Truely sir she tooke her
letters suddenly: and is now in her Minoms." If the latter means miniscule
letters, then they are looking at her upper case hand. And upper case P and Q
are not similar-looking, unlike lowercase p and q. And no other quotation in
the article gives P and Q (in caps also in the entry title) with points.
Therefore I suggest that the phrase here [which might be put in brackets as
non-idiomatic?] refers to uppercase letters. And, in any case, were there a
reference to pints and quarts, isn't the order backwards, sizewise accounting?
That the letters in order [cf. element possibly from the Semitic LMN] are the
possible origin may be echoed in some later quotes [(below) 1780
"squared their
Ps and Qs"; 1792, "did not make their P's and Q's exactly."] Making Ps and Qs
properly, according to protocol, all in order?

By the way, what is the status of an OED draft entry? E.g., do they,
after a set
period, enter the main text?

> Account of a debate in Coachmaker's Hall. By Harum Skarum, Esq.
> Skarum, Harum.
> London, 1780. 28 pp. p.19
> Now, Mr. President, had I been consulted, I would have squared their
> Ps and Qs  after another fashion. The moment the rebellion broke
> out...

> The Foresters, an American tale - Page 72-73
> by Jeremy Belknap - History - 1792 - 216 pages
> About this time old Lewis had grown sick and peevish, and had severely
> cudgelled > some [p.73] of his apprentices, because they did not make
> their P's and Q's > exactly to his mind.* The poor fellows, to
> prevent ...
> *Revocation of the edict of Nantes, by Lewis XIV. 1685.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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