Mind your Ps and Qs! Words and phrases from the printing press
You probably don’t think about the printing press very often, but in its heyday it completely changed the world. Little wonder, then, that a number of expressions from the world of printing have made it into everyday English. Next time you come out with the following phrases, give yourself a little pat on the back for using some rather technical printing jargon from days gone by.
Upper case and lower case
On an early press, printers had to arrange individual letter blocks to make up the words and sentences to be printed. Each letter or number block was called a sort.
The sorts, when they weren’t being used, lived in big, organised type cases, with the capital letters stored separately from the small versions. When the printing assistants had toiled away putting all of the sorts back in the right places, the capital letters would be in the upper case, and the small letters in the lower case.
Mind your Ps and Qs
Are you being instructed to remember your ‘pleases and thank yous’ or to take more care with your typesetting? The origin of this phrase is up for debate, but the printing press is a possibility.
Think about it: all of the sorts were mirror images of the letters that would be printed on paper. An overtired compositor could very easily stick a ‘p’ in where a mirror-image ‘q’ was required, especially since they were next to each other in the type case. It was a recipe for typo disasters, where hundreds of readers could be left to puestion what the newsqaqer was going on about.
Stereotype and cliché
When we call something stereotypical or cliché, we’re basically saying it’s unoriginal, which was precisely the point of a printer’s stereotype. Once a printing plate had been painstakingly assembled from all those individual sorts, you could make a cast metal copy – a stereotype. Then you could keep on printing that page using the stereotype and use the original sorts for something else. It also saved a huge amount of time and effort when somebody wanted to reprint a document after you had dismantled the original plate.
Cliché was a French word for a stereotype plate, named after the ‘click’ sound of the mould meeting the molten metal. Both stereotypes and clichés produced thousands of copies that were exactly the same – while we might tire of this uniformity and repetitiveness, eighteenth-century printers loved it.
Pity the actor who keeps getting cast as a particular type of character. Typecasting may be just a description of this process, but by now you can probably see how the word could also have come from casting metal stereotypes in the print room before it happened in Hollywood.
The dog’s bollocks
And finally… There was a craze for phrases involving spurious animal parts in the 1920s; the bee’s knees, the cat’s whiskers, and even the flea’s eyebrows all described something truly excellent.
Meanwhile, the dog’s bollocks still described this symbol :– that typists once used to introduce a list. You can see why. It seems that somebody heard this expression in the 1980s, thought it was the bee’s knees, and added it to the menagerie of most excellent animal parts.