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Q From Saleel Nair: What is the origin of the word posh?

A Something posh is elegant or stylishly luxurious; in Britain it also means somebody or something typical of the upper classes.

The best known and most widely believed story is that it comes from old-time ship travel from Britain to India on the packet boats run by the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company. It supposedly stood for “Port Out, Starboard Home”. It is explained that somebody who had a cabin on the port side on the outward trip, and on the starboard side on the return trip, had the benefit of the sea breeze, and shelter from the sun, on the hottest part of the journey through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Such cabins were reserved for the most wealthy passengers, we are told, and the P&O company stamped their tickets with POSH to show their status.

The trouble is there’s absolutely no evidence for it and P&O flatly denies any such term existed. It’s just a legend, though a very persistent one. One argument against it is that posh is known from 1918, while the story of its origin first appears only decades later. Occasionally, somebody claims to have seen one of these tickets — William Safire quotes one in his book I Stand Corrected of 1984. But no dictionary editor is going to be swayed for a moment by such memories unless and until an actual ticket turns up.

The wide popularity of the ship-related story hasn’t stopped people finding other possibilities. Some have pointed to The Diary of a Nobody of 1892, in which George and Weedon Grossmith introduce a character of that name: “Frank called, but said he could not stop, as he had a friend waiting outside for him, named Murray Posh, adding he was quite a swell”. Others are intrigued by lines from Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman: “Cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf, posh and ice in the river, half-frozen mud in the streets”, but posh here is a dialect term for mud or slush (as in Yorkshire dialect one might say “T’ roads is all iv a posh”). Eric Partridge favoured an origin in an abbreviated form of polished or polish (an example of what’s called grammatical syncopation, where a middle syllable has been left out).

The most probable solution — though unprovable because slang is so rarely written down — is that it comes from London street slang for money. This may well derive from Romany posh, half, originally applied to a halfpenny, then to any small sum of money, and then to money in general. This is recorded from as early as 1830 and was certainly still around in 1892 when Montagu Williams published his Down East and Up West, quoting in it a comment from a Londoner about a street singer who chatted up potential givers of money: “That sort of patter I was just speaking of is the thing to get the posh, they’ll tell you”. A shift in sense from “money”, to “well off”, and hence to “upper-class” is not too hard to imagine.

There is a more direct London slang sense of “dandy”, known at least from the 1890s, which is probably where George and Weedon Grossmith got the name of their character. This might be connected, or it might be a different word altogether.

Whatever its source, it looks from the evidence that posh in the modern sense was at first a military slang term of the First World War. Its first appearance is in the magazine Punch in September 1918, in which an RAF officer is saying to his mother, “Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there”; the verbal phrase to posh up, to make oneself smart, is of the same period.

[This article is the title piece from my recent book Port Out, Starboard Home, published by Penguin Books. It is also available in the USA under the title Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.]

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Page created 19 Dec 1998; Last updated 15 Apr 2005