What is the origin of the word ‘posh’?
There have been many attempts to explain the etymology of posh, with some theories being more persuasive than others.
Stylish dandies and cash
Posh, meaning ‘smart, stylish, splendid, luxurious’ is first recorded in 1914, with the chiefly British strand of meaning, ‘typical of the upper classes; snooty’, following soon after. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, there is a possibility that this meaning arose as a transferred use of the noun posh, a slang Romani word meaning ‘money’, or from a different homonym meaning ‘a dandy’. Indeed, the OED invites comparison with the following quotation at the latter entry, from Tailor magazine in 1912:
‘If he described another [tailor] as a great ‘posh,’ which means well-dressed, the whistle would place him in a‥ridiculous light.’
It is possible that there was a semantic development from ‘money’ to ‘moneyed, wealthy’, and so to ‘upper-class’ and ‘smart, stylish, luxurious’, or alternatively from ‘dandy’ to ‘upper-class’ and ‘smart, stylish, luxurious’, although it is impossible to state definitively.
Another possibility that is mooted is that the word comes from an Urdu word safed-pōś, which means ‘well-dressed’ or ‘dressed in white’ and was sometimes applied in a derogatory way to mean ‘affluent’. It ultimately comes from the Persian word pōś meaning ‘covering’, which is the same origin as the word papoosh, a type of Turkish or Middle Eastern slipper, usually made from soft leather. However, this origin would pose a phonological problem, and there is no direct evidence for the transition into English.
Salty sea tales
Perhaps the most common and, at first glance persuasive, explanation for the origin of posh comes from folk etymology. This popular account suggests that posh is in fact an acronym, standing for port out, starboard home. It refers to the fact that on sea voyages between Britain and India, the most comfortable (in terms of being cooler) and therefore most expensive cabins on ship would be on the port side going out, and the starboard side coming back. It was further suggested that the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company issued tickets for the more expensive cabins on this route with the letters P.O.S.H., and that this is where the origin lies. This rationalisation does seem, on the face of it, persuasive, and it is clearly a good story. Sadly, no evidence exists to back it up and no tickets with this designation have been found. It also begs the question of what happens on voyages between the two places if your home was in India. ‘He’s a soph fellow’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
Sadly, posh will just have to remain in the ‘origin unknown’ category.