P's and Q's points and questions

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Apr 21 05:02:58 UTC 2009

Stephen Goranson wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
> Subject:      P's and Q's points and questions
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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.

But there is surely some sort of funny business going on in this
Dekker-Webster passage, I think with various rude joke-double-entendres
(which I was born too late [and maybe too stupid] to understand).
"Minom" should = "minim" (I think), meaning "short stroke" (in
penmanship). Then this is opposed to "crotchet" which is half a minim in
musical notation but which I suspect is meant to evoke "crotchet" =
"crotch". Needless to say, the penmanship instructor is engaged in
hanky-panky with his student in her husband's absence. Or perhaps some
savant can correct my misunderstandings?

The roles of the p. and the q. here may become more obvious if one
explains the "A.", "B.", "C.", "D.", "E.", "F.", "G.", "H.", "LL.",
"O.", "V"/"VV", etc., some of which (if not all) presumably have some
humorous/scurrilous reference.

-- Doug Wilson

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

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