Posh: from the sea or from the gypsies?

Sep 29, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I mentioned the word posh, an adjective describing stylish items or members of the upper class, which came into the American lexicon from “across the pond”. But what is the origin of this word in British English? There are two competing etymologies.

According to the more popular etymology, this word came from the maritime speak. According to Terry Breverton’s Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities. A Book of the Sea,

Before air-conditioning, cabins on the side of ocean liners facing the sun became unbearably hot. Thus richer pasengers paid a premium to have their tickets on the P&O Line from England to India stamped ‘Port Out — Starboard Home’. So p.o.s.h. became a synonym for someone who was upper class.

However, this derivation is likely an example of folk etymology, more specifically of a false acronym. For example, the Online Etymological Dictionary doubts the validity of the maritime etymology; objections to the ‘Port Out — Starboard Home’ story are also outlined in G. Chowdharay-Best’s Mariner’s Mirror (1971).

The alternative etymology derives posh from a slang term meaning ‘a dandy’ (first recorded use in 1890), which in turn derives from thieves’ slang where it had the meaning ‘money’ (first recorded use in 1830). Some scholars suggest that posh in the thieves’ slang originally meant ‘coin of small value, halfpenny’, and even trace it further to a Romani word påš xåra meaning ‘half-penny’ or to an Urdu word safed-pōśh (‘one who wears white robes’, a derogatory term for wealthy people).

Other examples of false acronyms include the brand name Adidas believed to be an acronym for “All Day I Dream About Sports” (but really derived from the company founder’s name Adolf “Adi” Dassle); wiki, supposedly derived from “What I Know Is”, but in fact derived from the Hawaiian phrase wiki wiki meaning ‘fast’; and SOS often believed to be an abbreviation for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls”.

Since, as suggested by a lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower in his book The F-Word, acronyms were rare prior to the twentieth century, most etymologies of common words or phrases that suggest origin from an acronym are false.

Nonetheless, many other words and expressions in common use in English today come from the naval slang. I will explore them further in the next posting.

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