Fiction by Matt Gillick

(P) and (Q)

by Dr. Darbus Richards from Learton University (Winter Break Lecture Series)

Remember to mind your (p)’s and (q)’s: an elementary saying that no one seems to know much about. There are several disputes regarding the saying’s origin, one being that (P) and (Q) were abbreviations for pints and quarts recorded by bartenders to make sure Victorian booze hounds wouldn’t steal from their local drinking establishments. It may have French roots, more specifically referencing dance masters who instructed their pupils to be aware of the pieds and queues. But most commonly, one minding their p’s and q’s is rooted in a call to action for practicing good manners, as if (P) and (Q) exist on opposite ends of a spectrum involving balanced tact. Both letters appear similar in their lowest state, facing each other—(p) and (q)— as mirror images, reflective in their appearance but possibly charged with separate meanings. Once they arise to their upper-case, they become distinct.

But before reaching this state of increased capital, (P) and (Q) certainly needed to be properly minded for such a climbing of the linguistic social ladder to occur. A ladder? you ask. Why the hierarchy? you may ask. Well, no one’s asking, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume you believe that all letters are created equal. Not true. Some letters dominate others. Let me ask, how many (x)’s do you think will be used in this lecture? I know, I know this a lot to take in and some of you may react violently to my arguments. Believe me, I’ve seen it all before. I once gave a lecture about (i) before (e) except after (c), proving it as an intellectual inconsistency that subsequently started a riot at the Fifth-Grade Teachers Convention in Montgomery County. I have the scars to prove it! And here I am risking life and limb to try and prove how (P) and (Q) were minded in our lexicon, thus the root of the aforementioned phrase.

The real question is how: how did they ascend? What is the origin of this adage? We can’t be certain because many of those who lived during the time this phrase supposedly came about could not read or write and were unable to record its foundational meaning. Funny, how could one understand to mind their manners and act with propriety if they hadn’t a clue what the phrase meant let alone the ability to read? Would you expect a farmhand or foot soldier to know without education? Of course not! Thus, raising the question as to what catalyzed this saying, and why the letters (P) and (Q) and not, say, (A) and (Z)? With our alphabet being a heavily trodden spectrum of agreed-upon symbols meant to traverse the emotional, objective, historical, and subjective landscapes, wouldn’t it be more fitting to have the opposite ends of our framework be the basis of this saying instead of (P) and (Q) where one letter comes right after the other?

Perhaps their closeness is the reason for the phrase. Because manners are a balancing act between infinitesimal nuances, much like the spaces in between letters, wherein between each (A), (B), and (C) is a dark, endless chasm in which confusion and chaos reside. The Tower of Babel. For (P) and (Q) to be minded, perhaps they must walk along a tightrope together over that chasm, signifying the deft balance one needs in practicing politeness and diligence at a ball or fundraising dinner for your political candidate. But in order for that balance to occur, both need to be minded, observed, tamed before their ascension.

The origin and explicit meaning of remembering to mind your (p)’s and (q)’s have been lost to the stifled breath of history. So, we must now surmise a possibility; a proposed origin story as to how (P) and (Q) were first minded. Take note that this can only be supposed and the setting, the landscape of this possible origin, exists not in our distant fields, nor bustling cities, nor the quiet sedentariness of the suburbs, but the human mind.

Firstly, let us look at the shapes of both (P) and (Q) in their primary state, as they could provide clues to their origin. Maybe their shapes echo a key reference lost upon us in the modern era. For (P), notice how the shape indicates segmentation, containment. (P) doesn’t stretch out but remains still and firm, yet ornamental like a watchtower for a Venetian prince. A bosomy curve at the top but self-sustaining, unable to tip over. None of the various lines move outside themselves or imply moving beyond their confines. Say it to yourself: (P), (P), (P), and repeat. Do you notice that by saying it over and over that there appears to be an echo at the tail-end of your pronunciation? Yet that echo does not shoot out from your mouth and bounce off the wall of your study or bedroom or off your toilet bowl, but the echo shoots back down into your throat, and settles in the chest, trapping it. Therein lies a possibility that (P) is self-contained, caged even, wearing a suit with perfectly tailored hems, and possibly a waist trainer to be rigid at all times so as not to imply imperfection—not a wrinkle in their suit or fruffle in their gown.

Now, moving onto (Q). Take note of (Q)’s shape as well. From what we can tell, we can hypothesize there being a representative personality. (Q) is reminiscent of arguably the most perfect letter in our framework: (O). (O) is perfectly circular and self-contained, never going outside established limits. Looking at (Q) in the upper-case, they have comparable elements—but, oh my, if you look at the bottom, you find a squiggle escaping the circle. A dragging tail. Perhaps a piece of erratic linework from a shaky quill pen? Or is it intentional? This spermy-looking line extends beyond the letter’s circumference and very well may extend indefinitely. It is a letter untamed by propriety, taken out of the context of gentility and regimented expression, unlike its counterpart, (P).

Now say the letter to yourself: (Q)…(Q)…(Q). Say it three more times and be conscious of the sound. There is a continuation, like a stifled ahhhh or ribbit at the tail-end as if (Q) is an unfinished symbol that needs to be connected to something else to reach fruition. The sound creates this sensation of outward vibration like your throat adds an extra layer of bass to the pronunciation. (Q) elbows their way onto our spoken lexicon while also possessing a distinct quirkiness. That quirkiness might be a glimmer of what it used to be in its protean form. In short, (Q) is a natural outlier, albeit an incomplete one; one that is wild and lacking any propriety or decency conditioned by societal norms. (Q) is hinged by the realm of language but how they operate within their cage is unhinged. I find solidarity with (Q)—a nutty professor indeed. In reciting our alphabet, no letter can be placed next to (Q) unless it fits perfectly, otherwise, they’d be ripped to shreds, and splattered along (Q)’s cell wall. Which is why we have (P) to act as the balancing agent and vice versa. See how much can be divulged from simply repeating a letter? Many believe saying something over and over eliminates its significance. I argue that doing so can unlock mysteries.

I will now propose a possibility—a circumstance, if you will—where (P) and (Q) in their lowest states [(p) and (q)] were minded, and thus became tenets in the foundational framework we call the English language. There may indeed have been a specific situation that led to the minding of (p) and (q), but it has been lost by the forgetful minds of our language’s legions of oracles, shamans, priests, and scribes. Therefore, I will endeavor to illustrate what might have happened to (P) and (Q).

In the beginning, language was disparate and fragmented. Letters were scattered. There was no order. Hand motions were the norm for communication, a horrifying obstacle for the handless. Letters were merely loosely threaded references. Practically speaking, they were on the same level as a belch or a fart. (a) meant (x) and (x) meant nothing because it didn’t exist yet, and (r) had more of a growling, rrrrolling sound, to name just a few inconsistencies. Inconsistencies we wrestle with today, but we’re still too damn stubborn to change anything. From here on out, (p) and (q) will be referred to in their lower-case forms to better represent their roots, for they had not yet achieved capital.

The setting: a desolate country road where misty hills flirt with the distance, all covered—wetted—by an overwhelming grayness. Remember, this is the human mind’s landscape we’re referring to and, at this point, language was in the gray area. Definitions and terms are nothing but a collection of blurs. To give an illustrative point of reference, imagine this is a stretch of road between Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. Full disclosure, I have never been to Nebraska. In fact, I’ve never even seen a picture of Nebraska, but still, you know what I mean when I invoke the image. Coming from the east, we find (p).

(p) is nowhere near the state required for it to be referred to as (P), but (p) still possesses features that amplify themselves once they eventually reach their preferred capital state. Let’s say (p) is on the road traveling to Omaha on business while riding a horse because, with (p)’s constricted propriety derived from its sound and shape, our little friend is one of status, stymied by etiquette and breeding. (p) wears long, flowing robes and the finest pelts to keep warm and never dismounts from their horse so as not to muck around in the mud and dirty themselves. To a fault, (p) is of well-born gentry, figuratively speaking, of course. They keep their chin raised to the air and possess a constant, elitist stoicism expressed from a well-cleaned face practically pink from scrubbing. A fawn-like vision silently trotting along this wet, grey-brown road. The journey has been hard. Days on the road. Nights in the cold brush. (p)’s extremist snobbery has compelled them not to ask for any help, let alone any food. There have been many pubs and inns that (p) could’ve stopped by and rested their weary head, but due to their gentility, (p) is starving and parched. Of course, (p) could eat the horse, but how would they get to Omaha? Certainly, they aren’t going to walk through the mud. No, sir! Not one of (p)’s stature.

On the other side of the road, coming from the bleak obscurity of the west enters a creature crawling on all-fours like a primate. Observing this newcomer, (p) instructs his steed to halt, and waits for it to approach without giving a proper salutation because this thing doesn’t ride a horse and certainly must be dirty or unwell. This ambling figure breathes heavily through the mouth, as if perpetually exhausted, out of breath from pursuing or fleeing whatever was behind it. This is (q). (q) could not be more of an opposite to (p). They have long, shaggy hair, knots collecting knots, and a scraggly beard that has grown thick. So thick and unkempt that bugs and lice swirl around the hairy mess. Eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep: an absence of settling, a lack of any foundation in its existence. A face dirty and pimply and pockmarked with layers of dirt and grime and scars, harkening back to days fighting off anything that would threaten their survival. (q)’s garb is nothing but a patchwork of stolen and scavenged cloth. Raising its gaze from the ground as it crawls along the road, (q) finds themselves looking directly at a creature riding upon the back of another creature. (q)’s first inclination is whether or not (p) would be good to eat, except such a question would not be posed in this way given (q)’s ferality. Grunts and single-word inquiries bounce around (q)’s porous mind where nothing’s retained. Of course, (q) is also starving, having not eaten in days. A standoff commences.

Both (p) and (q) look into the other’s eyes, each trying in their own way to determine what could be done with the other. Both begin to silently recognize themselves in the other’s features. For (p), they see that beneath those years of dirt and grime is one with the same eyes, same nose, even the same shaped ears. For (q), they see that behind all those frilly robes and ties and tassels and garments and floral saddle decorations is a kinship, a similarity.

One might think this is wonderful, that under all superficialities we are nothing if not the same in some way or another. Ideally speaking, we’d like to think (p) and (q) encounter each other on this desolate country road and embrace each other as if they’re long-lost twins separated at birth. For all we know, they very well might have been. But we would be looking at this hypothetical with the conditioned notions that there is civility in a civilized society in which this reunion occurs. We all want happy endings. Yet, there is no civilized society here. Only chaos and madness to be eventually distilled into an acquired rationality for keeping their shadowy remains, whether they be out of convenience or arbitrariness. No, the first thought either one thinks is if one should kill the other—a natural, adrenal response. To see these similarities would be to see a threat to the other’s survival in this linguistic landscape, a threat to the other’s uniqueness. We’re sure to see this at parties when someone with a personality similar to your own usurps your role as the walking-talking anecdote or the clownish drunk by the open bar who needs to have his wife drive him home by the end of the night. There’s an emptiness, a death of the ego. Who else can relate? So, in preparation for engaging in some sort of combat, (q) raises their back, ready to pounce. (p) positions their horse, ready to gallop and trample. And, right at the moment of when one would undo the other, a four-legged beast comes over a ridge and walks in between the two. Let’s say, this four-legged creature is a fox.

Soon enough, (p) and (q)’s attention diverts from each other to the fox in question. (p) knows this is the last opportunity for a meal and slaughtering this animal is the only way they survive. Except there’s one big problem which has already been mentioned: (p)’s crippling gentility. Certainly, no one of (p)’s vaunted station should be expected to dismount and kill an animal, let alone skin and degut it. (p’s) fine furs would be smattered with blood, their boots scuffed, their petticoat stained with perspiration. However, (p) does possess all the know-how required to properly slaughter the animal: how to make a spear, to stab it directly in the heart, and then roast it over an open-flame rotisserie. (q) is, of course, the opposite. (q) is more than eager to attack this fox and rip it apart with their teeth while it bled out. It has the strength that would make quick work of the fox if given the opportunity. The problem is that foxes are wily animals and (q) is anything but clever. Even if they were able to subdue and undo the fox, (q) would begin feasting before properly skinning and degutting, and possibly become ill. Both are at an impasse where one refuses to act and the other would most certainly take the incorrect course of action.

But, theoretically speaking, since this is a supposition of what may have happened, what if (p) and (q), being mirror images, look at one another, then at the fox, and come to an agreement? They cannot verbally solidify this bargain for they do not have the language, they are merely letters. When they look into each other’s eyes, a partnership binds the two. We’ve come across moments like these with complete strangers recognizing a feature in the other, most commonly our basic humanity. Think of what happens on a snowy day by a city pond when a Weimaraner falls through the ice. What happens when people see it? More often than not, panic settles in, then a few individuals with extraordinary resolve briefly observe each other and, while not having known the other from Adam, begin to tie a rope of shirts and coats and wrap it around someone who braves the frigid water while the rest hold on tightly. It happens all the time with people who don’t know each other, but they both recognize that something must be done.

Out of a freshly arisen instinct, they partially rescind their uncompromising positions and work together. (p) dismounts from their horse while (q), to their own surprise, becomes bipedal, standing up and walking clumsily on two legs. The former takes out supplies and begins crafting a spear while the latter proceeds to track the fox’s pawprints, limbering themselves up for a chase. Soon enough, (p) hands the newly made spear to (q) and as soon as they feel the shaft and poke the sharpened tip, they know exactly what they need to do. Leading the way with its quivering jowls, rank odor, and nonsensical child-like growling, (q) follows the tracks along the country road. (p) follows behind, covering their face with a satin cloth to avoid the product of (q)’s flatulent wake.

Soon enough, they come upon the fox lying down in a meadow. As soon as (q) sees the beast, it snorts happily, ready to shout and yelp and screech. But before (q) can do this, (p) signals that they must be quiet and come from behind. The specifics as to how this can be communicated without alerting the fox is not important. Any lingering questions can be answered later during the Q&A or, dare I say, Q&P. I’m sure this joke would’ve done better had anyone decided to come; regardless, the wheels of education do not stop turning simply because no one is around to hear them!

So, (p) and (q) begin to sneak up behind the fox laying in the meadow. With the way (q) holds the spear, it feels natural in their grasp. (p) elects to keep a safe distance, while (q) quietly moves in on the animal. Before the fox has any time to react, (q) jumps up and raises the spear and plunges it into the animal again and again. The beast screeches but (q) only yells and grunts with glee at each strike. The fox is dead. (p) then prepares a fire and begins instructing (q) how to properly slaughter the animal, and maybe get their own hands dirty should they need to. And on that night, (p) and (q) have a marvelous, albeit silent, feast.

Thus, the origin of (p) and (q) being minded could very well have been through some form of resignation or capitulation on the part of both parties, and doesn’t that perfectly sum up language and communication: a basic exchange of give-and-take where opposites can achieve the same goal equally without sacrificing the other? I would venture to say that (p) and (q) wake up the next day with a full set of plump bellies and, without either propositioning the other, walk down the country road on their way to Omaha where they will be received as a packaged deal for the rest of time, lauded by all of language. Before (p) and (q) could be minded, they had to mind each other.

Matt Gillick


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