When something smells bad, you’ve probably said (or hear someone say) “P.U.!” But what does that really even mean?
As funny as it might be, PU definitely does not stand for “Pretty Unpleasant”. As a matter of fact, it’s not an initialism at all. “P.U.” is most likely derived from the early 17th-century word “pew” (spelled multiple ways), which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “expressing contempt, disgust, or derision.” While all the differently spelled versions are technically pronounced as one syllable, the leading theory is that people have drawn it out over two syllables (P.U.) for extra flair. Kind of like how Jim Carrey says “B-E-A-YOO-ti-ful!” (in “Bruce Almighty”) instead of “Beautiful!” Since saying pew as “P-Yoo” sounds exactly like the letters PU, it’s not a stretch to see how everyone eventually started thinking that’s how it was spelled.
Now, with that said, the pew-to-PU pipeline isn’t the only theory behind the expression. Some linguists think it might have come from the Indo-European word “pu”, which means “to rot or decay”. And then there’s the Latin verb “putere”, which means “to stink.” There are quite a few terms with ties to “putere” and other related Latin words, including, among others: pus, putrid, and the 16th-century noun putor, meaning “a bad or unpleasant smell.”
In short, the letters “PU” have been associated with stench at least as far back as ancient Rome. As for whether the expression PU came directly from there or arose in England (or somewhere else) much later, we can’t be sure. But what we can be sure of that this is where we got the Looney Toons character Pepe Le Pew.
Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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