The origins of POSH

Normally I would not have wasted time writing on this kind of thing, but when I started to read the latest Clive Cussler Novel which opened up with the definition of POSH, I was intrigued for that word had already become part of my lexicon from early days. OK, so after reading the book, I wanted to check it out and check it out I did to realize that there is a real POSH world out there! So many hits - Google had thousands of hits on the word. Indeed, it was a pretty interesting trip with many Indian stop overs.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines Posh as "Smart and fashionable; exclusive”. Let us look at the interesting origins of the word.

The most elaborate version of the story associates the practice with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, which from 1842 to 1970 was the major steamship carrier of passengers and mail between England and India. The P. & O. route went through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. 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 quite 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.

Oxford dictionary states - The story goes that the more well-to-do passengers traveling to and from India used to have POSH written against their bookings, standing for 'Port Out, Starboard Home' (indicating the more desirable cabins, on the shady side of the ship). Unfortunately, this story did not make its appearance until the 1930s, when the term had been in use for some twenty years, and the word does not appear to have been recorded in the form 'P.O.S.H.', which would be expected if it had originated as an abbreviation. Despite exhaustive enquiries by the late Mr George Chowdharay - Best, researcher for the OED, including interviews with former travelers and inspection of shipping company documents, no supporting evidence has been found. Unfortunately no tickets with Posh stamped on them have been found and company records reveal no sign of the phrase.

Merriam provides a nice explanation – We do not know the precise origin of the adjective posh, meaning "elegant, fashionable," but nearly everyone else seems to. Every year we get dozens of letters informing us that posh comes from the first letters of the phrase "port out, starboard home," which designated the most desirable accommodations on a steamship voyage from England to India and back.

The earliest example of posh in print comes from a cartoon in Punch, 25 September 1918. It shows an RAF officer talking to his mother and has this bit of dialogue: "Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there."—"Whatever do you mean by 'posh', Gerald?"—"Don't you know? It's slang for 'swish'" This exchange is not incompatible with an origin in university slang, but earlier evidence is lacking.

The most tantalizing earlier connection is in a 1903 story by P. G. Wodehouse in his Tales of St Austin's. In the story a character remarks of a bright yellow waistcoat that it is "quite the most push thing of the sort at Cambridge." Unfortunately for posh, Wodehouse spelled it push. In the much later Penguin paperback edition of the stories, the editor, Richard Usborne, changed push to posh. When queried, he replied that he suspected the original push to have been a misprint. If it was not a misprint, he thought it might have been a mistake by Wodehouse, who had never attended a university and who had made a number of small factual errors about Oxford and Cambridge in other stories. If Usborne's surmise is correct, posh would have been university slang. But it is only a surmise, and we are left with the intractable push originally printed.

This became quite popular actually and was even included in the lyrics of a song ‘Posh’ in ‘Chitty chitty bang bang’. But the myth continues to be one, with suggestions even that posh is an Urdu - Farsi word meaning “clothes.” The best guess as to its origin is that it derives from Romani, the language of the Rom (commonly known as Gypsies).A tenable theory is that "posh" meant "halfpenny" (from Romany "posh" "half") and then "money" before acquiring its present meaning. Now posh has a sarcastic tinge attached to it. This is (in British terminology) a lower middle-class term to describe people who act "above their level". People who actually are "posh" (upper-class people etc.) would not as I understand, use the word. And all this led to another acronym SOPH (for the travel from China to England) for another shipping route.

But well, why is port on the right and starboard on the left – for only this explanation will provide a definition to the term POSH. The answer goes back to Dragoon powered Viking ships of the 8th to 10th centuries. Because these ships were pointed at both ends and they were steered by a rudder (a.k.a steer board which evolved to starboard) not in the middle of the stern but on the right side. So as you come into dock, you have to dock on the left side to avoid hitting the rudder board on the dock. Thus port is on the left and starboard on the right

There are many such theories, but the one now accepted by many people, in a way, is the most exotic. Ironically, it was probably the European Gypsies, who came originally from Northern India themselves, who introduced "posh" to the English language without ever setting foot on an ocean liner. "Posh" is an actual word in Romany, the language of the Gypsies, meaning "half." Evidently the word originally entered the argot of England's underworld in the 17th century in such compounds as "posh-houri," meaning "half-pence," and soon became a slang term for money in general. From there it was a short hop to meaning "expensive" or "fancy." Posh Houri means half pence and posh koorna means half crown

As they say, one thing leads to another – all this aptly coincided with a study that I am into, the mysterious world of the Romany’s and their Indian origins!!!

A teaser – OK what is ‘Phat’? Pretty hips and thighs!! ‘Pommy’ is Prisoner of mother England!! Or ‘Cop’ - Constable on Patrol, ‘Golf’ - Gentlemen only ladies forbidden. well, well...we wasted a lot of time trying to find out some silly stuff – I will not go on any further lest you all clobber me, read the book Word Myths By David Wilton, Ivan Brunetti if you have the time and inclination.

Pics РP&O leaflet from the collection of Björn Larsson, pls check out his Introduction page.. Rajputana pic from bbc.


gauri said…
Very interesting, as always. I've known about POSH as an acronym, but didn't know the Urdu/Gypsy angle. You think it might have anything to do with the word 'Poshaakh'?

GOLF - that's a fun acronym, but that's more of an urban legend, right? Not quite the origin of the word. I bring it up it because you mention it along with COP, which is, in fact originally Constable on Patrol.

Check this:

Very interesting (and informative!) read; love your "origin of..." posts :)

Sunita said…
Interesting! Just the kind of stuff I love to spend my time on reading up.
Hmmm... I wonder whether Victoria Beckham knew about the portside, starboard-side tale when she tagged herself Posh Spice ? Something tells me she wouldnt like to be associated with a big, fat ship ! A lean, spiffed-up catamaran maybe but not a ship, I think.
Maddy said…
Gauri- Thanks I agree that the Golf expansion is just urban legend. In fact I had an additional para about all that when i first wrote it, up with some additional words plus a bit more on golf, then i took it out. Now that you say it poshak does make sense...but that is more like healthy - posh people these days i think are far from healthy.

Sunita - Like you mentioned, i had planned to mention posh spice too, but took it out. subsequently i came across this very detailed analysis of being posh in UK.
Actually if you read about her, you wonder. Both madaonna and victoria, and why they needed that upwards mobility. i can understand having lived in 'class' severe Britain.
Kind of you to have shared your reserches on POSH and tracing it to India. Thank you sir.
Aravind said…
Hi Maddy,
Once again Loved it( 5 STARS).
I think I will refer your blogspot to all my friends,who want to impress(Put Kadalai*) thier GF.Just in Ligher vein.

*- Putting Kadalai means talking about interesting things in timepass mode either over phone or in person.

Fortunately I dont have a GF but i do share this with ma sister.So nice topic for post dinner.
Great post again. I think im going to designate you the fountainhead on absolutely fascinating stuff!
Maddy said…
Thanks PNS & Arvind - Hopefully Arvind you will find that GF soon..I think you should have said un-fortunately - or well, maybe you meant it when u said fortunate!!!! just joking.

Cynic - thanks, glad to know that you all find this interesting... more on the way
Ashvin said…
Dear Mads, I had heard and read about the POSH story while in service with P&O. In fact I still have a small leather bound telephone index with P.O.S.H. embossed on the cover, which used to be placed in the cabins as a takeaway.....
Happy Kitten said…
Posh is a word that every English loving Malayalee uses and so also the ones who have no idea of English.. it is almost a malayalam word!