Today is Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cats and Ps and Qs

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By ANNE DONNELL

Would you mind telling me what p’s and q’s are in the saying, “Mind your p’s and q’s”?  Do you also know the story behind naming the Southern states “Dixie”?  I have some other questions, but I’ll get back to you.  Thanks,- A Curious Cat                                                                                        

A curious cat! I searched for the familiar “Curiosity killed the cat.”[Perhaps not a nice thing to say as our QP of T (Question Person of Today) selected this nom de plume (pen name).]  I didn’t find its history. Its meaning is clear to any observer of cats, from ancient Egypt where they were revered to our house where the revering is less frequent, warped into an ignored, “Stop that, Parker. NOW.” Looking at a formerly attractive tapestry chair whose frays I’ve been trimming regularly, I wish I remembered why I was opposed to declawing. But, I like their little twisted free spirits, their attitudes that outpunk any punk.   

Some language questions have an easy answer, something like “first printed in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755.” [Samuel Johnson (1708-1784, British journalist, author, and lexicographer. His influence on English life and letters is hard to overstate. His biography by James Boswell is said to be the most famous biography of all. Well, unread by me. Let me know what you think of it when you finish it.] 

Mind your p’s and q’s and Dixie yield theories, not smack dab, hard fast answers. So much of education turns out to be like that.

On the point of American education: A well educated friend after reading this column [12/31/2008] via e-mail noted, “Everyone can add ‘improving language skills’ to the list of resolutions. Think you missed one other reason these skills are not valued -- Education is not valued in this country.” She’s right, isn’t she? If not, why aren’t we “putting our money where our mouth is”? Nope, we’d rather build roads than children. I think we could and should manage both rather well.

So to p’s and q’s. Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue cites them in 1811.  In 1835 Charles Dickens used the expression in Sketches by Boz. In Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood by George MacDonald (1867), the phrase reads mind your peas and cues. This from Michael Quinion’s Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.

 Quinion provides citations and advice for the Oxford English Dictionary; he wrote a third of the entires for the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of New Words. (I regret the red stain that appears on several pages of my copy, but despite my heavy reading of British crime novels over the holidays, the stain is too red for blood. And certainly not the cat’s. )

Quinion goes on to say that no one seems to have any facts about the origin of this phrase; there is not even agreement on what p and q stand for. Robert Hendrickson’s QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins agrees word for word. Some theories are floating about, though. Farfetched, but some from dictionaries, proof that many dictionaries are best used when sat upon by young children trying to eat at the grownup’s table. (1) The phrase is mind your pleases and thank-yous, breaking down to p(l)eas(es) and (than)kyous. [Yep, “breaking down” is right!] (2) The phrase refers to confusing the handwritten lower-case letters p and q. But as Quinion and Hendrickson point out, why not warn about b and d ? (3) The phrase is admonition to printmakers setting individual letters; again, the same objection as in #2. (4) The phrase advises a barman not to confuse his pints and quarts when tallying up what’s owed. No evidence anyone ever used the letters p and q when marking a slate, but someone probably did, right? (5) The phrase is direction from a French dancing master to mind pieds (feet) and queues (wigs). (6) The phrase warns sailors not to soil their pea jackets with their pigtails (queues). (7) The phrase is an update of a seventeenth century colloquial expression P and Q, for “prime quality.”

Well, who knows? Take your pick.

Now Dixie’s not clear, either. Oh, we know now what we mean, but the mystery is when did this start, this what we mean now?  There’s an 1885 reference to a New York slave owner of yore, and he’s called a “Dixie.” Many say it’s clearly a slurring of Mason-Dixon line with the Dixon part being the South. The “line,” the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania surveyed in the 1760’s by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, was once the division between free and slave states. Now someone saying “below the Mason-Dixon line” is referring to southern states. Like Tennessee.

For the origin of Dixie others go with the French-Creole dix, meaning “ten” and printed on New Orleans Bank notes before the Civil War. There’s also a theory that says it’s for a kind slave owner named Johan Dixie or Dixy.

The popularizing of the term is probably connected to the famous song by songwriter and minstrel David D. Emmett, composed in 1859. Emmett, a native of Ohio, was in New York City and wishing away the cold weather. The song would become a favorite marching song of the Confederate Army, but the troops first singing it were Union heading south. Emmett said in 1872 that Dixie or Dixieland was a common expression when he wrote the song, that many a cold, uncomfortable traveler muttered, “I wish I was in Dixie.” 

The song’s story entered a different phase at Lebanon High School, Lebanon, Tennessee, January 3, 1969. The pep band began playing “Dixie” and, as a matter of principle, young Charles Caldwell put down his instrument and walked out into litigation and history.  

And so we celebrate a presidential inauguration yesterday in a country of great differences and strong unity, prejudices and justice, crime and hope, truth scattered among our errors, poverty and hunger among our plenty. But we persevere.

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