Past its prime.
Dear Word Detective: I was watching cartoons this weekend (I’m 46 years old, why do you ask?), and of, course, as we all know, old cartoons are the best cartoons. One of the characters in a Bugs Bunny episode I was enjoying reacts to a strong smell by holding his nose and shouting “PEE-YOU!”. I laughed, and I hope if I ever stop laughing at that kind of gem, somebody puts me in the ground. Anyway, it occurred to me I had no idea where that particular phrase comes from; a brief internet search turns up many different spellings (include one very intriguing “P.U.”), but not much information on origin. Can you help? — Chris, Kansas City.
Old cartoons are indeed the best cartoons, and, in my humble opinion, old cartoons are one of the few rationales for the existence of television. By old cartoons, incidentally, I mean, as you do, those of the Looney Tunes school of inspired nonsense, not that lame Disney stuff. Looney Tunes brought us Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester and Tweety, and Marvin the Martian. Disney gave us Mickey, Minnie and, let’s see, oh yeah, Goofy. No contest.
Since the early 17th century (and probably much earlier), English has had a number of interjections intended to express disgust, impatience or weariness. These have included “pfeu,” “pooh,” “pfu” and, most enduringly, “phew” and “pew.” All of these forms were “imitative,” simulating the action of blowing through pursed lips as an expression of disgust, etc. (“Phu, a fig for his Money,” 1726). While we use “phew” to express relief (often sarcastically) today, “pew” or “pyoo” in particular came to be a common reaction when encountering a bad smell or another disgusting phenomenon (“Pew! That yogurt must be old enough to vote!”).
Now fast forward to the early 19th century, when there was a fad among fashionable young people which consisted of abbreviating popular sayings into initialisms. “All right” was rendered as “A.R.,” “no good” became “N.G.,” and so on. Often the words were also deliberately misspelled before they were abbreviated, as in the case of “all correct,” transformed into “oll korrect” and thereafter into “O.K.” (Martin Van Buren’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 1840, supported by campaign clubs called O.K. Clubs as a pun on his nickname “Old Kinderhook,” further established “O.K.” in the popular lexicon.)
It is very likely that this “initialization” rage among the youth of the day also expanded “pew” into “pee-yoo,” and transformed it into “P.U.” It’s hard to pin an exact date on the invention because many of the products of this fad didn’t make it into print until years later (if at all), but my guess is that “P.U.” and its longer form “pee-yoo” have been signifying disgust since at least the mid-19th century.