posh

“Posh” means rich, aristocratic, wealthy, loaded, fancy, elegant, toffee-nosed, swanky, well-off, or well-to-do. 

A very popular urban myth says that “posh” originated from the phrase “Port Out Starboard Home.” It sounds plausible, but a good many language experts, including the Oxford and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries, Phrases (a British website specializing in phrases) and Snopes, all say it’s nonsense. When you’ve read the analysis, I think you will, too.

The most elaborate version of the story cites the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, which from 1842 to 1970 was the major steamship carrier of passengers between England and India. The cabins on the port side on the way to India got the morning sun and had the rest of the day to cool off, while starboard ones got the afternoon sun, and were still hot at bedtime. On the return trip, the opposite was true. The cooler cabins, therefore, were the more desirable and were reserved for the most important and richest travelers. Their tickets were stamped P.O.S.H. to indicate these accommodations–in large violet letters, according to one recollection. This account of the origin of “posh” was even used in advertising by the P. & O. in the 1960s.

But the myth isn’t true. The first appearance of POSH in print that we know of was a letter to the editor of the London Times Literary Supplement of 17 October 1935. And as late as 1962 the librarian of the P&O was unable to find any evidence that P.O.S.H. was actually stamped on anything. And why would the P&O clerks have to stamp anything on the tickets? Surely they must have known the location of every cabin by its number. And no evidence of such stamping has yet appeared.

Of course, we love acronyms and it’s fun to use them to explain common phrases, even if the explanations are wrong. For example, golf (‘gentlemen only, ladies forbidden’), and cop (‘constable on patrol’) are nonsense but they keep turning up. Acronyms are a twentieth-century phenomenon and researchers haven’t found any examples before the 1920s. Which is hardly surprising, since the word “acronym” itself wasn’t coined until the 1940s. Any explanations of older words as acronyms, like “golf’,” or “posh,” are sure to be false.

There are many things wrong with the “Port out, starboard home” yarn. For starters, British citizens who bought passage to India rarely made reservations for their return trips when booking the outbound leg. The sea journey between the two countries was lengthy and not undertaken lightly, so once folks arrived in India they tended to stay there for months, even years. Most people did not, therefore, lock themselves into firm return dates, instead choosing to book return passage only when they were ready to go home. Therefore, they wouldn’t have roundtrip tickets to stamp with the abbreviation “POSH.”

Second, the monsoon winds on the route between England and India shifted from winter to summer, so the sheltered and exposed sides of a ship changed seasonally. One part of the year’s “posh” therefore would be another’s “soph.”

Third, while modern cruise ships emphasize balcony cabins (priced higher than staterooms with windows, and higher yet than inside accommodations which lack any sort of window), passenger liners in the 1800s went the other way. Nearly all rentable cabins then available were located in the interior of the ship and thus didn’t have even a porthole.

Fourth, P&O say they have never issued such tickets and, although many tickets from that era still exist, no “POSH” ones have been found. The same goes for the alleged chalking of POSH on steamer trunks. The lack of any citation of “port out, starboard home” in any of the numerous letters and literary works that remain from the British Raj is an even more convincing argument against that origin. This would have been the trip of a lifetime to at least some of those who took it, so such travel documents, had they existed, would have made their way into any number of scrapbooks or fancy boxes wherein folks stored their keepsakes.

Fifth, the tale about “Port out, starboard home” also didn’t surface until 1935, two decades after the earliest appearance of “posh” (in the “luxurious” or “swank” sense) was noted in 1914.

There are other theories to account for posh. The most likely source is a term in the Romany language spoken by gypsies in 17th century England: “posh-houri,” meaning “half-pence.” The posh component of that compound word stuck around, attracting the slang meaning of money. In 1830 the word was used in print as a term for money (“He had not got the posh yet”). A reasonable assumption is that, over time, a slang term for “money” came to mean “someone who has a fair bit of money,” which then jumped to mean “something that costs a lot of money” or “something that only the very rich can get their hands on.”

But “posh” was also used to mean “dandy,” so says a slang dictionary in 1890, which indicated that the word had been around for a bit even before that. This meaning is not incompatible with that of luxury and riches.

George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, which began publication in serial form in the English satirical magazine Punch in 1888, has a character called Murray Posh, who is described as “a swell.” The book is a satire of the times and most of the characters’ names are intended to match aspects of their personality, so it is quite probable that the Grossmiths used the name Posh with the meaning of swanky, et al.

I rest my case. And, while you’re considering it, I’m off to the grocery store with my bag of posh-houris.

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