Hand-printed books of poetry,
Plus tips and supplies for fellow letterpress printers.

Mid your Ps and Qs

Printing Idioms

There are lots of expressions that are popularly attributed to typography and printing. Etymologists often describe the suggested printing origins of these phrases as ‘folk etymology’ which we understand to mean ‘the ramblings of sentimental old codgers’. It's dated written evidence that they're after and, when it comes to the everyday banter of any trade, that's likely to be thin on the ground.

We've looked into the suggested origins of Mind Your Ps and Qs, Out of Sorts and Mullered from a printerly perspective, and now present our findings for your amusement. (More to follow!)

Mind Your Ps and Qs!

Most old printers will tell you that mind your Ps and Qs was a common expression in the composing room, where apprentices were prone to confusing lowercase Ps and Qs when setting or dissing type (putting it back into the type case). Type sorts (individual pieces) are a mirror image of the letter they print and they're set upside down in the composing stick, so it's a very easy mistake to make even for experienced comps.

The common usage today is roughly equivalent to mind your manners, or as a more specific reminder to say please and thank you. It's quite a jump from the composing room to this modern use, but it wouldn't be the first idiom to change its meaning over time, and you can imagine older comps delivering this mild reprimand to their children without giving it much thought. When it's your turn in charge, it's amazing how you find the voices of authority from your own youth suddenly speaking from your lips!

There are many rival theories about the origins of mind your Ps and Qs. One is that it was used when children were learning to read and write. If you've ever seen the early scrawlings of children, or the Toys'R'Us logo, you'll know that they commonly reverse letters by mistake. It's usually Bs and Ds that prove most problematic though, sometimes tripping up much older children. I've even seen under-confident 10 year olds trying to get round the problem by creating a half-way letter (see the Phi-like character above). So why isn't it mind your Bs and Ds? The same applies in the composing room where, in most type faces, lowercase Bs and Ds are much easier to confuse than Ps and Qs. Gary Martin of Phrases.org.uk writes:

‘I've never heard any suggestion that printer[s] should mind their ds and bs, even though that has the benefit of rhyming, which would have made it a more attractive slogan.’

Unlike Gary, I have heard the suggestion that printers should mind their Bs and Ds, having been told that the full phrase is mind your Ps and Qs and Bs and Ds. It makes a lot more sense if it's true, and there has been some abbreviation. Mind your Ps and Qs and Bs and Ds is much better advice for an apprentice, because of the added confusion of rotation. But there doesn't seem to be any record of this longer version predating mind your Ps and Qs and it could be argued that the Bs and Ds may have been tacked on to add weight to the claims of those ‘sentimental’ printers.

Out Of Sorts

In printing, sort is the name for a single piece of type. If you run out of the letters you need, you're out of sorts. Not only is that frustrating, it could be very costly if work has to be stopped while extra type is aquired. The customer won't be happy with the delay, either.

In modern usage, feeling out of sorts usually means feeling a bit poorly, not feeling yourself or feeling unhappy. It's no great leap to the modern meaning from those frustrated comps, teeth-gnashing money men and impatient customers.

This time it's a matter of timing that has brought the origin into question. The OED's earliest record of the use of out of sorts in the printing sense is dated to 1784, from Benjamin Franklin:

‘The founts too must be very scanty, or strangely out of sorts, since your compositors cannot find either upper or lower-case letters sufficient to set the word administration.&rsquo

But the modern sense was recorded as early as 1621.

‘I wonder... to see one... that knowes all must worke for the best, to be at any time out of tune, or out of sorts.&rsquo

This quote from Samuel Ward also predates the first recorded use of the word sort meaning a piece of type.

It's perfectly possible that out of sorts was being used by printers, long before 1621, but it's also possible that they recycled an existing phrase which then meant out of stock.

And Some Slang:  Mullered!

The OED's editors argue for a separate origin for the drunkenness sense [of the word mullered] from that of being beaten or destroyed. They agree the former is probably from the verb mull [which means to grind down to a powder]; they suggest it may be tied in with mulled for a hot spicy drink, where the link could be with the grinding of the spices. However, they suggest that the latter sense is from the British dialect of the gypsy language Romani, in which there is a stem mul-, derived from the verb to die,’ writes Michael Quinion of WorldWideWords.org.

Something you might have heard – if you were involved in commercial printing in the last 20 years – is that mullered somehow derives from Muller Martini bookbinding equipment. A very small amount of research will tell you that this almost certainly is ‘folk etymology’.

Mullered, with a capital M, has been used to describe the output of Muller Martini binders probably since they were first manufactured in the 1950s.

The earliest recorded use of mullered, uncapitalised, is from 1993 but it's suggested that it could be far older – even older than Muller Martini binders.

It seems most likely that Mullered and mullered are unrelated words, the former jelously assuming responsibility for the latter when it found fame in the 1990s.

By Gillian Sands

You Might Also Like...