In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the obscure and mysterious history of a now ubiquitous word
If you’re sitting comfortably, how about a quick round of the Interesting Literature Friday Night Quiz of Doom? Well, all right, just a single quiz question. Ready?
Where did the word ‘posh’ come from?
Let’s make it multiple choice:
a) An acronym
b) A coin
c) A Victorian poet’s ‘friendship’ with a fisherman
d) Nobody knows
The answer is, any except a).
Let’s begin with the word ‘posh’ as a noun. In the nineteenth century, a ‘posh’ was slang for money, and specifically a halfpenny or another coin of small value, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records. This sense of ‘posh’ is attested from 1830. Curiously, the word has its origins in a Romani term for a coin: the Welsh Romani phrase påš xā̊ra referred to the halfpenny coin. And even more curiously, the English Romani term for the same thing, only in the plural (i.e. halfpennies), was posh-hórri.
Then, towards the end of the nineteenth century, an alternate meaning of ‘posh’ arose, again from that constant stream of living language, slang. Once again, this ‘posh’ was a noun rather than the more familiar adjective we use today, although, interestingly, this ‘posh’ referred to a dandy: a well-dressed, and often well-off, man about town. Among other sources, this ‘posh’ appears in the 1902 book Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, compiled by John S. Farmer and William Ernest Henley (the latter of whom was the author of the poem ‘Invictus’ as well as the inspiration for the character Long John Silver).
This meaning of ‘posh’ – to denote a dandy – may, the OED cautiously informs us, stem from the original meaning (a coin), perhaps because dandies had lots of money. Or it may be related to our modern sense of ‘posh’ – as an adjective – to denote something grand and upper-class. But the OED also offers, under the etymology of the word, two intriguing instances of ‘posh’ being used as a proper noun in works of literature:
The first is from a letter of 5 January 1867 written by Edward FitzGerald: ‘I believe I have smoked my pipe every evening but one with Posh [sc. the nickname of FitzGerald’s fisherman, Joseph Fletcher] at his house.’ FitzGerald was one of several Victorian poets who translated the ancient Persian poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. A fisherman named Joseph Fletcher was nicknamed ‘Posh’—possibly because of the s and p sounds in his forename. Fitzgerald’s appreciation of Fletcher’s—or ‘Posh’s’—physical beauty went beyond that of the typical Victorian gentleman (much as Oscar Wilde’s admiration of beautiful young men did). This is another popular possible but not definite origin for the word.
(The OED’s other literary example is from George and Weedon Grossmith’s riotously funny Diary of a Nobody (1892): ‘Frank … said … he had a friend waiting outside for him, named Murray Posh, adding he was quite a swell.’)
P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), the great English humourist and writer, and creator of Jeeves and Wooster, used the word ‘push’ with much the same meaning as we nowadays use ‘posh’. In an early collection, Tales of St. Austin’s (1903), we find: ‘That waistcoat … being quite the most push thing of the sort in Cambridge.’ This term falls more or less bang in the middle between the earliest citation for ‘posh’ (a dandy: 1890) and ‘posh’ (the modern-day adjective we all know: 1914), thus strengthening the idea that the modern word derived from the late nineteenth-century slang term for a dandy.
The only answer that is certainly not acceptable is a). There is a theory among so-called CANOEs – that is, Campaigners who Assign a Nautical Origin to Everything – that P&O ferries, in the days when Britain ruled India, are responsible for giving us the word ‘posh’, from the initial letters of the statement ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’, which appeared on the tickets they sold to wealthy customers for the best berths on their ships. Wealthy customers would board the ship on the port side, and arrive home and disembark on the starboard side, hence ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’.
But this theory has no evidence, and besides, P&O ferries never even printed ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ on their tickets, which is something of a setback for the theory, too. Indeed, acronyms were rare before the First World War, when the word AWOL (short for ‘absent without leave’ or ‘absent without official leave’) was first used. The word ‘acronym’ itself wasn’t coined until 1943 – curiously enough, the same year that the ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ myth appears to have turned up in print for the first time, in Peter Muir’s travel book This Is India.
So, in conclusion, we cannot say for sure where the word ‘posh’ originated, but we can discount the ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ acronym theory with pretty much 100% certainty. There’s another theory that the word comes from the Urdu safed-pōś meaning ‘dressed in white’ but also, apparently, ‘affluent’, but the evidence that this term made it into English is weak. The most likely explanation for the mysterious origins of ‘posh’ is that it was either a conversion (noun to adjective) from the older word referring to a coin or, perhaps more likely, the slang term for a dandy (which itself may have been derived from the coin term). So, after all that, the term ‘posh’ may have been coined in more than one sense (as it were).
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons (courtesy of the Wellcome Trust).