origin of the usage P.U.

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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by bensonmr » Tue May 10, 2005 12:08 am

I have been asked where P.U. comes from. I just said it means stinky but I did not know the origin so here I am...
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue May 10, 2005 3:39 am

Michael, This turns out to be a bit of a mystery. It seems clear to me that P.U. is an elongated pronunciation of the word which is pronounced PEW, which we utter when something smells bad. However, there is no such word with this meaning and of this spelling ('pew') according to all the standard and slang dictionaries that I have checked in spite of the name of that lovable but odoriferous Looney Tunes skunk Pepe Le Pew.

The Dictionary of American Slang by Wentworth & Flexner says the following:

P.U. or p.u. 1) PHEW, said on smelling a bad smell, as something rotting. Colloquial – an exaggerated pronunciation of ‘phew.’

But PHEW is not pronounced ‘pew’ and is, in fact, as far as I can determine, a different word entirely. According to all dictionaries that I have checked ‘phew’ is a vocal gesture pronounced ‘fyoo’ expressing relief, fatigue, surprise, disgust, impatience, discomfort, or weariness – nothing specifically about a bad odor (except for digust, but I don’t think that is the same one).

It seems like no one, other than Looney Tunes is willing to admit that the word should be spelled, or at least pronounced, ‘pew.’ Even the usually reliable Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang gives us the runaround with the following:

p.u.! exclamation [20th century] expressing impatience, contemptuous distaste or disregard. [Standard English ‘poo!’] [[Except for one thing. There is no Standard English word ‘poo’ with this meaning, although there is the word POO (which doesn’t appear in most standard dictionaries) meaning excrement or 'poop.' But the word ‘excrement’ and the exclamation ‘P.U.’ are two different things. The word POOH, however, does expresses disdain or contempt. But the expression of disdain or contempt is not the same as the ‘P.U.’ (‘pew’) we know and love that says that something stinks]].

I guess I'm stumped as to the correct spelling of the word that P.U. stands for - although little doubt as to what it stands for - and which as far as I know is pronounced PEW. Anyone have any bright ideas on this subject?
_________________

Ken G – May 9, 2005

(Shelley pointed out that Pepe Le Pew was produced by Looney Tunes and not Disney and I have corrected that in the above)
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by bensonmr » Tue May 10, 2005 6:53 am

Perhaps it is an shortened usage for the French word for stink???
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by Phil White » Tue May 10, 2005 8:38 am

I certainly remember that as kids in the UK we would hold our noses and say something like "Oh poooh!" in the presence of a foul odour or, by analogy, a disliked fellow pupil. Not something I would associate with adults though. Certainly never heard of "P.U." or the pronunciation "pew".
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by William Barclay » Tue May 10, 2005 9:09 am

Veterans and fans of the women’s Lacrosse team at Harvard University can answer this one.

As everyone who was a fan of Ivy League lacrosse in the 1950s can tell you, Harvard’s biggest rival in women’s lacrosse, at the time, was Princeton University. The rivalry between these two teams still exists, and when the Crimsons meet the Tigers (Tigresses?), blood flows!

During the post war period, one of the distinctions associated with Princeton University was a huge sauerkraut factory that was situated on the east end of the campus, adjacent to the lacrosse field. When the wind blows in just the right direction, the smell became almost unbearable. The lacrosse coach, a German refugee, was convinced the smell would be inspirational to her girls. It also inspired not so sportsmanlike (sportswomen like?) behaviour on the part of the opposing teams.

When the first matches were held between the two schools, the smell of fermented sauerkraut would waft over the field, prompting Crimson fans to yell out “Princeton University Stinks” which was soon shortened to “PU stinks”, and eventually just “PeeeeeeeeUuuuuuuuu”.

So there we have it!
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by Bobinwales » Tue May 10, 2005 10:09 am

As a child I always thought that Winnie the Pooh was probably smelly, hence the name. I, like Phil, have never heard of P.U. although pew was (possibly still is) in use by children, but that could be easily attributed to the South Wales accent.

Personally, I prefer Bill’s explanation. This bloke is dafter than me!
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by Shelley » Tue May 10, 2005 2:00 pm

Hi -- I hate to be contrary, but I think Pepe Le Pew is a Looney Toons character, not a Disney invention. Cheers!

(Thanks Shelley - you're right. I've corrected the error in my above comment.)
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by haro » Tue May 10, 2005 8:06 pm

Michael (bensonmr), the pronunciation of the French verb 'puer' (= to stink) is so far away from the English pronunciation of 'P.U.' that it cannot even be transferred to English spelling in a way that a native English speaker could pronounce it. It seems your suggestion, as tempting as it may look, is a bit shaky when it comes to pronunciation, although sometimes even such seemingly far-fetched explanations can be true.
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by bensonmr » Tue May 10, 2005 10:46 pm

In true Yankee style economy of use and not correct pronuciation/meaning seems to frequently be the rule.
haro wrote: Michael (bensonmr), the pronunciation of the French verb 'puer' (= to stink) is so far away from the English pronunciation of 'P.U.' that it cannot even be transferred to English spelling in a way that a native English speaker could pronounce it. It seems your suggestion, as tempting as it may look, is a bit shaky when it comes to pronunciation, although sometimes even such seemingly far-fetched explanations can be true.
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by haro » Wed May 11, 2005 12:33 am

Michael, I agree, and there are examples galore to prove your point, but I still can't believe that someone would take just two letters from a word of a foreign language and use them to make something that looks like an acronym.

A new word or term must have a raison d'être to become popular. It must be either absolutely striking and meet a demand, or it must be pretty obvious what it means. As far as I can tell, 'P.U.' as a derivative of 'puer' is far from both. There are exceptions, though, for instance when such a creation is widely spread by the media, which doesn't seem to have been the case with 'P.U.'
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by bensonmr » Wed May 11, 2005 1:42 am

Much of my grandfather's family was Cajun/American and they had many "unusual" terms and phases. I do like the Harvard/Lacrosse story.
haro wrote: Michael, I agree, and there are examples galore to prove your point, but I still can't believe that someone would take just two letters from a word of a foreign language and use them to make something that looks like an acronym.

A new word or term must have a raison d'être to become popular. It must be either absolutely striking and meet a demand, or it must be pretty obvious what it means. As far as I can tell, 'P.U.' as a derivative of 'puer' is far from both. There are exceptions, though, for instance when such a creation is widely spread by the media, which doesn't seem to have been the case with 'P.U.'
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed May 11, 2005 5:05 am

My hypothesis -- and it is only an impression, not a thoroughly-researched theory -- is that 'P.U.' (which as far as I have been able to observe is a purely American term) is a kind of exaggerated interjection of disgust which has been influenced jointly by 'poo' (= 'shit'), 'pooh!' (another interjection signifying disgust), 'F.U.' (= 'Fuck you!') and that other peculiar, and peculiarly American, word with which disgust is currently most often expressed, 'Ew!' (= Brit. 'Ugh!' or 'Yuck!'); this is pronounced similarly to an extended 'you', but without the tongue-assisted constriction of the mouth that produces the 'y' element in that word. Admittedly the 'U' in 'P.U.' sounds more like 'you', but the dragging out of the vowel is very similar to what one hears with 'Ew!'

I agree with Hans Joerg that given this expression's exclusively US stamping-ground, any connection with the French 'puer' is highly unlikely -- partly for reasons of problematic pronunciation (US English is highly unaccepting of foreign pronunciations), and partly due to the simple lack of familiarity with French that is the norm in the USA. Few people in the US have any knowledge of French unless they are from Louisiana or some other region that still has some residual cultural resonance with France. Add to this the fact that 'puer' (= 'to stink') can be expected to be pretty low on the radar of learners of French; after all, most people who learn a foreign language tend to acquire just enough to get by in the situations they anticipate having to deal with, and for the majority of them, knowing how to talk about things that stink (at least ones that stink in a literal sense) generally does not figure highly on the list of language-learning priorities. (And if a person of Anglo-Saxon descent in the US knows any foreign language at all, it will most likely be Spanish.)

I suspect that 'P.U.' is a term that sprang into being in teenager-land -- perpetrator unknown -- and given the viral spread and in-your-face nature of many of the cultural excrescences of teenagers, quickly became fashionable. The mainstream media are not required for this mode of propagation. Hans Joerg, you overestimate the rationality of cultural creativity in such a milieu.
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by Bobinwales » Wed May 11, 2005 8:40 am

Erik, Have you hit the nail on the head accidentally? "perpetrator unknown" - "p.u."?
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed May 11, 2005 10:57 am

Very well spotted, Bob! I did not notice that! :-D
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origin of the usage P.U.

Post by Milagro » Thu May 12, 2005 1:28 am

I have been waiting for someone from Princeton University to respond. It was not the odor of fermenting cabbage that drifted across the athletic fields, but a bovine perfume from Walker Gordon Dairy just northeast of town . Said smell was the the subject of much derision by the band in the halftime fun of football games and a spoof ( April first one year, think ) in print suggested the University and Walker Gordon intended to merge. In 1999 this dairy went out of business after stimulating the nasal passages of Tigers for many generations.
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