Why do we say "P.U." when something stinks?
A Backbencher investigation.
My wife Sarah and I were arguing this morning about the derivation of the expression P.U. to express disgust at some particular smell. I said it was probably an abbreviation. She thought its derivation was onomatopoetic, an approximation of the involuntary spasm of revulsion that a foul smell can provoke.
This is what the Internet is for, right?
First I had to clear away alternative meanings. P.U., it turns out, also stands for:
· Purdue University
· Princeton University
· Panjab University in India
· University of the Punjab in Pakistan
· Taoist expression to describe the human condition (unrelated to Lear’s “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality”). Literally “unhewn wood.”
· Pop up (as in “please message me on Snaptchat”)
But what of P.U. in the sense of “what a nasty smell”?
My Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for P.U., but it does have puant, which dates to the 16th century and means foul-smelling” (“The bodies of rich-men … are more puant and stinking than the bodies of poore men”). The OED also has a meaning of pew dating to the 17th century that means “an utterance of contempt or derision.” Today this word is more often spelled “peugh” and denotes an utterance of contempt or derision specifically about a foul smell. Possibly P.U. is a more emphatic and/or countrified way to say peugh, the way some Americans say “Eye-talian” for Italian and “Eye-rack” for Iraq.
Wictionary, which may or may not know what it’s talking about, says it’s from the Spanish fu, an expression of disgust, but that sounds like a stretch. More plausibly, it suggests it may be derived from the French puer, which means “to stink.”
There are several confident references online to P.U.’s derivation from the Latin puteo, which supposedly means “to stink,” and I reported this triumphantly to Sarah. But on further investigation I found that puteo in Latin primarily is a noun for “beer,” at least according to a couple of online translators that I tried. Its verbal meaning, “to stink,” appears pretty secondary.
I report this with great reluctance, because I really wanted P.U. to be an abbreviated Latin phrase, like RIP or QED. I envisioned that Brutus, while he sank his dagger into Julius Caesar and said Sic semper tyrannis, found time to add something pithy about the Roman emperor’s inattention to personal hygiene, which of course would be much more evident at such close quarters. But in fact, it’s doubtful that Brutus had the time even to say Sic semper tyrannis.
I won’t bore you with the debate about whether P.U. should have periods in it or not, except to report that most seem to favor no periods.
On the ultimate question of derivation, our judges conclude that while it’s certainly possible it’s an abbreviation of the English puant or the French puer, or maybe even the Latin verb puteo, the absence of confirming evidence compels us to give this one to Sarah. P.U., or rather, PU, would appear to be an exaggerated version of peugh, previously pew, which mimics the disgusted exhalation of breath that often follows inhalation of a foul smell. Especially since puant and puer and putto would also seem to mimic that involuntary physical reaction.
I welcome better-informed commentary from readers. Please keep rank speculation to yourself.
I was thinking about the French take on puer. Reputation is something that clings to one like a bad odor. Someone of ill repute has the odor of their ill-viewed practices upon them. The crude, abbreviated word for sex-worker in French is pute. The women who practiced the oldest profession were considered unclean. When the French want to use the "f-word" they say "putain", a longer form of the word for a prostitute, interestingly.