P's and Q's points and questions

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Tue Apr 21 14:21:16 UTC 2009

Quoting "Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET>:

> Stephen Goranson wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> 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

Thanks, Doug. I agree with much of what you wrote. But, though they may be
admiring her attributes other than handwriting, I find it difficult to imagine
14 letters as 14 putative abbreviations for 14 unknown, lost words.
(After all,
the letters were spoken; that a typesetter added [presumably unspoken] points
need not be telling.) Further, in the 1602 quote, also by Thomas Dekker, the
letters are spelled out, with no points, as in all the other OED online
so unlikely to be yet further mysterious abbreviations.

[1602 T. DEKKER Satiro-mastix sig. E2v, Now thou art in thy Pee and Kue, thou
hast such a villanous broad backe, that I warrant th'art able to beare
away any
mans iestes in England.]

Before that 1602 quote, we are informed: "Enter Horace in his true attyre,
Asinius bearing his cloak". So his now Pee and Kue dress appears to be
a return
to proper order, an order apparently unrelated to pub tabs, however

Stephen Goranson

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

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