I realised today that I often write about how words can become used regularly by being associated with a certain sense of prestige, and that I’m quite likely to use the word posh in this regard. I then became curious to research the origins of the word: partly because it’s an interesting word, loaded with meaning, and one that doesn’t quite sound like an English word.
My other reason is because I’m already aware of one story about its origin which sounds too good to be true, and I wanted to see if that really is the case.
First of all, what do we mean when we say someone or something is posh? The obvious basic meaning is that it means associated with the upper classes, or exclusive, very expensive. But there’s always a value judgement wrapped up in that definition. We never use the word in a positive sense. While it’s not completely derogatory, we tend to use it in a gently mocking or critical way. We might make fun of someone for serving us “posh” food when they normally keep things simple, or we might refuse to look for clothes in a certain shop, or dislike a certain celebrity, because they’re “too posh.” For me, it’s a relatively healthy attitude to take towards the world of those who simply have a lot more money than most of us.
So where does this word come from then? The commonly-held story is that in the 19th and early 20th century, voyagers on P&O Lines ships between England and India would prefer to avoid the sun, as it could make their cabin too hot. Apparently, the best side of the ship to be on to avoid the sun was the port side on the voyage from England to India, and the starboard side on the return trip (port is the nautical term for the left-hand side of a ship, and starboard the right). The most expensive tickets then would be those with a cabin on the port side on the outward voyage, and on the starboard side on the return home to England. To represent this, the tickets would be stamped with P.O.S.H (port out, starboard home). People would then pronounce this as posh, and it began to be used as a slang word.
It’s a nice story, but isn’t it a bit too neat? And how many people would be aware of what’s printed on cruise tickets, for the word to become so common? Sadly, there’s no evidence to support the veracity of this story. Instead, the word seems to have originated in an old Romani word meaning half, which came to be used to refer to halfpenny, and then money. Though in this case, no-one’s too sure of its exact origin. The Romani origin seems a likely enough one though, as it’s a pretty typical example of meaning drifting over time.
Still though, you’ll often hear the port out, starboard home story recounted as the truth. Which I think just goes to show that an interesting story is always going to be more popular than a boring truth. Our desire to believe that something interesting is true often overrides our critical thinking and natural suspicion of the incredible.
Like that time I was eating in a restaurant and Bill Murray stole one of my chips…