On the scent of a stinky etymology

Q: Is the term “P.U.” (meaning distasteful or smelly) an abbreviation for something?

A: No, “P.U.” isn’t an abbreviation for two words beginning with “p” and “u.” The initials are merely a phonetic rendering of the exclamation people make when they smell something bad.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the exclamation has been spelled many different ways since it first showed up in 1604: “pue,” “peuh,” “peugh,” “pyoo,” and “pew.”

The word is pronounced PYOO, but it’s often stretched into two syllables for emphasis: pee-YOO.

Although the OED doesn’t list “P.U.” as one of the spellings, it seems all but certain to us that the initials represent the two-syllable pronunciation.

The OED, which uses the “pew” spelling for its entry, defines the exclamation as an expression of “contempt, disgust, or derision.”

The dictionary doesn’t specifically mention disgust caused by a bad smell, though that’s how we usually hear the exclamation used today. In fact, the most recent OED citation uses the term this way.

The quotation is from Sue Miller’s novel Family Pictures (1990), and refers to the tobacco smell in the narrator’s hair after she visits her therapist:

“Sometimes when I saw my boyfriend right afterward, he’d pull his head back from my stinky hair and say, ‘Pew: therapy!’ ”

For some reason, the latest standard dictionaries ignore humble “pew.”

But our old copy of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), printed in 1956, has it, along with the alternative spelling “peugh.” It’s defined as an interjection for conveying “disgust, as at a stench.”

And by the way, “pew” in its various guises is not to be confused with another interjection, “phew,” which also dates back to 1604 and which the OED defines as “expressing impatience, disgust, weariness, discomfort, or (now often) relief.”

Nor should we confuse it with “pooh,” first recorded in 1600 as an expression of “impatience, contempt, disdain, etc.”

However, “pooh,” is sometimes used like “pew” to show “disgust at an unpleasant smell,” as in this 2004 citation from the Guardian: “Pooh, that smells a bit off!”

Check out our books about the English language