– to be on one’s P’s and Q’s and variants: to be on one’s best behaviour; to be at one’s best, on top form
– to mind, or watch, one’s P’s and Q’s: to be careful or particular in one’s words or behaviour; to mind one’s manners
– one’s P’s and Q’s: one’s alphabet, one’s ‘A.B.C.’; by extension: knowledge or judgement, ‘one’s way about’ (Connotations of good manners and correct behaviour are often present even when they are not explicitly referred to.)
(from Oxford Dictionaries)
The diversity of meanings might indicate that there have been different phrases of the same form but of distinct origins. It is remarkable that the phrase first appeared:
– in the singular form P and Q only,
– over a very brief period of time (1602-1605),
– and in satirical comedies written or co-written by three playwrights only, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker and John Webster.
It seems that during that brief period P and Q referred to several double entendres which have become difficult or impossible to comprehend.
Some of these double entendres were of a sexual nature, as in A Mad World, My Masters, a satirical comedy by the English playwright Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), first performed in 1605. Richard Folly-wit is described as “a mad-brain a’th’ [= of the] first rate”, and Lieutenant Maweworm is one of his comrades. In Act 3, scene 3, Folly-wit has just disguised himself as a female prostitute:
– Folly-wit: Where shall I chuse two or three for pimps now? but I cannot chuse amiss amongst you all, that’s the best. Well, as I am a quean, you were best have a care of me; and guard me sure. I give you warning before hand; ’tis a monkey-tail’d age. Life, you shall go nigh to have half a dozen blyth fellows surprize me cowardly, carry me away with a pair of oars, and put in at Putney.
– Maweworm: We should laugh at that, i’faith.
– Folly-wit: Or shoot upon the coast of Cue.
– Maweworm: Two notable fit landing places for lechers, P and C, Putney and Cue.
The word cue was used for queue in the French sense of tail to denote the penis. For example, in a letter, Dudley Carleton (1573-1632) described a drunken courtier who fell overboard into the Thames, whose breeches were “but taffeta and old linings”, so that when he was hauled up by the seat the first thing that appeared “was his cue and his cullions [= testicles]”. However, in A Dictionary of sexual language and imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart literature (1994), at the entry queue sexual organ (tail), Gordon Williams writes that
the word-play in Middleton […] is tricky, since use of shoot would seem to require a feminine sense for cue […]. Some flexibility is also required with P, anciently a visual image of the male genitals.
But, while in lovers’ alphabets P stood for prick, it seems to me that put in at Putney is a pun on the words pute, putain, borrowed from French at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries and meaning prostitute (incidentally, these two words are related to putrid).
Gordon Williams also writes that more generally “letters of the alphabet provide copious opportunity for bawdy quibbling”. One of the early occurrences of P and Q belongs to a lovers’ alphabet in Westward Ho, a satirical comedy written by Thomas Dekker (circa 1572-1632) and John Webster (circa 1580-1634) probably in 1603 or 1604. In this play, Justiniano is disguised as a writing-master called Parenthesis who, while pretending to teach three wives, facilitates contact between them and their gallants. In the following dialogue, one of the three husbands, master Honeysuckle, asks Parenthesis if his wife is making progress:
– Honeysuckle: And where abouts is shee now maister Parenthesis? Shee was talking of you this morning, and commending you in her bed, and told me she was past her letters.
– Parenthesis: Truely sir she tooke her letters very suddenly: and is now in her Minoms [= is now learning to write the minims, the short vertical strokes used in the letters i, m, n, u, etc.] […] I trust ere few daies bee at an end to haue her fal to her ioyning: for she has her letters ad vnguem [= to perfection]: her A. her great B. and her great C. very right D. and E. dilicate: hir double F. of a good length, but that it straddels a little to wyde: at the G. very cunning.
– Honeysuckle: Her H. is full like mine: a goodly big H.
– Parenthesis: But her double LL is wel: her O. of a reasonable Size: at her p. and q. neither Marchantes Daughter, Aldermans Wife, young countrey Gentlewoman, nor Courtiers Mistris, can match her.
– Honeysuckle: And how her v*.
[* u and v were identical in form.]
– Parenthesis: You sir, She fetches vp you best of al: her single you she can fashion two or three waies: but her double you, is as I would wish it.
– Honeysuckle: And faith who takes it faster; my wife, or mistris Tenterhook?
– Parenthesis: Oh! Your wife by ods: sheele take more in one hower, then I can fasten either vpon mistris Tenterbooke, or mistris Wafer, or Mistris Flapdragon (the Brewers wife) in three.
(It is interesting that in this dialogue “at her p. and q.” — which the Oxford English Dictionary (3d edition – 2007) misunderstands as meaning on her best behaviour [see footnote]— supposedly refers to learning to write, because it is a common suggestion as to the origin of the phrase.)
According to Gordon Williams, in this dialogue B is either belly or bum, while C is cunt. The double F is the fork (of the thighs), that is to say the genitals, and the verb to straddle hints at over-use, if not pox. G is game in the sense of woman as sexual quarry. The master’s remaining characters are only partially clear, as is the further vaginal reference: double LL., O. and p. and q.. O is probably for orifice, while p and q are perhaps for prick and queue. (In his comedy Monsieur D’Olive (1605), George Chapman (1559-1634) wrote “O’s but next door to P; and his mistress may use her O with—with modesty: or if thou wilt, I’ll stop it with another brackish tear”, which was explained earlier by “here’s a full prick stands for a tear”.)
O P Q V (U and V being identical in form) in Westward Ho can perhaps explain O P Q in The Family of Love, written about 1602-07 by the above-mentioned playwrights Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker:
Here are lords that, having learned the O P Q of courtship, travel up and down among citizens’ wives, to shew their learning and bringing up.
A variant of O P Q V, O Q P V meant occupy you in lovers’ alphabets, as in the acme of the following “lesson” from Tricks of youth, or, The walks of Islington and Hogsdon with the humours of Woodstreet-compter (1663), a comedy by Thomas Jordan (circa 1612-85):
– Flylove: Can you conceit why I have singled you thus from the company.
– Bellaflora: No, pray instruct me Sir.
– Flylove: The instructions are too easie to be good, since you appear so innocently modest, I’le be your amorous School-master for once.
– Bellaflora: You’l teach me no ill Doctrine.
– Flylove: No, no, prethee observe me, be but capable, and I’le warrant thee an apt Scholler.
– Bellaflora: Well Sir, so far as I perceive it’s good, I’le learn.
– Flylove: I’le shew you the Lovers Alphabet, be observant then, and be not squeamish, but do as I direct you; When a Gentleman and’s Lady do meet, A. the first letter is A salutation.
– Bellaflora: The word begins with S.
– Flylove: No matter for the word, give me the sence, B. the next letter, lend me your fair hand.
– Bellaflora: Very good Sir.
– Flylove: ’Tis in a very good hand indeed; nay I’le shew you more tricks by and by, it is so very fair that I must kiss it, there’s a letter gone that stands for C. I confess C. may stand for another business, and fitter for the letter, but a kiss shall serve at this time.
– Bellaflora: On I pray Sir.
– Flylove: Nay, I shall come on fast enough, I warrant you. D. shall joyn both our hands, now do we look as if we were wrestling, which of us both should give the first kiss.
– Bellaflora: You make your own construction Sir.
– Flylove: I, I, no matter, it’s nere [= not at all] the worse for that.
– Bellaflora: Proceed Sir.
– Flylove: Stay, stay, let’s pause a little, you’l forget it agen else, E. is embrace me, there I have hit you to a letter.
– Bellaflora: You come neer [= near] me now Sir.
– Flylove: I shall come neerer yet, for F. I’le stroak your cheek.
– Bellaflora: F. stands for flattery*.
[* Since he has significantly omitted explanation for the letter F, she supplies her own word.]
– Flylove: Not at this time fair one, if you will tye me punctually to a letter. F. stands for Faith or Friendship.
– Bellaflora: That is the truest use on’t [= of it].
– Flylove: Well, it shall go so then. G. is a Gift.
Gives her a Ribbon.
– Bellaflora: I’le wear it.
– Flylove: Let me see you.
– Bellaflora: First make an end.
– Flylove: H. stands for Hug me t’ you.
– Bellaflora: I have heard of a Wine call’d by that name Sir.
– Flylove: Were it Nectar it could not be sweeter then this.
– Bellaflora: It seems your favour and my embrace do want no acceptation.
– Flylove: I. stands for you, and K. standing for kiss, is I kiss you.
By the breath of Venus y’have a pleasant lip.
– Bellaflora: I’m glad it pleaseth you; to the next letter.
– Flylove: L. is another kiss, it stands for Love.
– Bellaflora: L. may be lust, but it should be Love.
– Flylove: I, I, it may stand for both by fits. M. stands for Mary.
– Bellaflora: So it may for Marry.
– Flylove: Remember R. stands for repent, but I am far enough off from that. N. is the next letter, N. stands for ne’re [= never] be good, you shall learn O. Q. P. V. in private, that is the full prick or conclusion of the Lovers Alphabet.
(The occupy you joke is here reinforced by full prick.)
However, no sexual pun seems to account for the very first known use (of obscure meaning) of P and Q, in Satiro-mastix; or, The vntrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602), a play by Thomas Dekker:
Enter Horace in his true attyre, Asinius bearing his Cloake.
– Asinius: If you flye out Ningle [= friend], heer’s your Cloake; I thinke it raines too.
– Horace: Hide my shoulders in’t.
– Asinius: Troth so th’adst neede [= in truth you need it], for 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 [= jests] in England.
– Horace: It’s well Sir, I ha strength to beare yours mee thinkes; fore God you are growne a piece of a Critist, since you fell into my hands: ah little roague, your wit has pickt vp her crums prettie and well.
And in A drunken knave, from The Knave of Harts (1612) by the satirist Samuel Rowlands (floruit 1598-1628), to be P and Q seems to mean to be of the highest quality:
Boy y’ are a villaine, didst thou ﬁll this sacke?
’Tis ﬂat you rascall, thou hast plaid the Jacke :
Bring in a quart of maligo, right true;
And looke, you rogue, that it be pee and kew.
Some good Tobacco, quickly, and a light :
Sirrah, this same was mingled yester-night.
What pipes are these? now take them broken up,
Another bowle, I doe not like this cup.
You slave, what linnen hast thou brought us here?
Fill me a beaker, looke it be good beere.
What claret’s this? the very worst in towne :
Your taverne-bush deserves a pulling downe.
Boy, bring good wine, when men of judgement cals,
Or Ile send pots and cups against the wals;
Five qualities to wine there doth belong,
Coole, dauncing, fragrant, beautifull, and strong.
Thus Ile be serv’d, neate, briske, without a dash,
Or, Ile not pay a penny for your trash.
By this his braines coole fragrant beauty feeles,
And strong, and dauncing, trips up both his heeles.
It is perhaps significant that the expression only reappeared in print almost a century and a half after this 1612 text, and in the plural in to mind one’s P’s and Q’s — so that it might be a different phrase. It is found in The Life and Memoirs of Mr. Ephraim Tristram Bates, commonly called Corporal Bates, published in 1756. The author has just met a man of “all trades” who is going “to Gloucester, for work” and who explains to Bates “to travel cheap, always chuse the Autumn”:
Bates gave him a Shilling, which the Fellow tossing up, and catching with a Smack, — cried — ‘’twill do’; which was his Way of saying ‘thanky’. “Mind your P’s and your Q’s, and always travel in the Autumn. — Away for Gloucester”.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (3d edition – 2007) [see footnote], in this text mind your P’s and your Q’s means mind your manners. But it is improbable that the man to whom Bates has just given a shilling would say that to him. The context indicates that the sense is look after yourself.
note: I have exposed other errors in the Oxford English Dictionary in:
– on errors in the Oxford English Dictionary
– original meaning of ‘to see the elephant’
– the mistaken origin of ‘white elephant’ in the Oxford English Dictionary
– a curious case of misunderstanding in the Oxford English Dictionary
– mistaken etymology of ‘not to give a XXXX’ in the Oxford English Dictionary
– clew – clue
– the authentic origin of ‘a pretty kettle of fish’
– The usual explanation of ‘Hobson’s choice’ is fallacious.