Posh

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…

15 thoughts on “Posh

  1. Well I like the story of the ticket, but agree that it sounds a bit too conceived! I actually noticed the picture too. Is that Boris Johnson in the front?

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  2. Over here in the USA, it seems posh is usually used in a derogatory manner, usually hinting that it’s something used by snobbish rich people who are out of touch with common people. I also don’t feel like it’s used as much, since when I read “posh” it’s somewhat natural to pronounce it in my head with a bit of an English accent. Quite possibly more specifically the voice of Rupert Grint/Ron Weasley.

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  3. I often wonder what the origin or etymology of a lot of words in English is. Quite a few times you hear a new word and then look up the meaning and you think, this word is the perfect word for the meaning it implies. Like for me “guzzle” as in “gulp down fast” does an aha! Yep that’s the right word for it. Posh is another such word that conjures opulence with a little snooty in it. 🙂 Not sure of the origin but I sure like how the P.O.S.H story was made up!

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  4. […] Now, I’ve often thought that there must be a link between arm as in weapon, and arm as in that thing between your hand and your shoulder. Because you see, you usually hold a weapon in your hand, which is at the end of your arm, and in films and TV, grizzled old mentors are always telling our heroes that their weapons should be an extension of their arms. There has to be a link, it’s just too good to be… […]

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  5. […] It goes to show how a little knowledge can not only go a long way, but occasionally too far. I can understand the people who “correct” the way to decimate is used. With a little Chinese whispers, people came to believe that to decimate came directly from Latin, and the idea of it meaning to execute 10% is an attractive one. It makes an interesting story. Couple this with our inherent desire to show off what we “know,” and it’s no surprise that this misconception is perpetuated, like other too-good-to-be-true stories. […]

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