Debunking myths: the real origins of ‘posh’ and ‘tip’
In his pioneering 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson focused on words that were, as he put it in an explanatory essay, “used in the general intercourse of life, or found in the works of those whom we commonly style polite writers”. The operative word here is polite, which referred in part to the domains of learning that belonged to a good education, but also to a standard of propriety. This preference for words (and exemplary quotations) drawn from polite letters shaped the content of many dictionaries up into the 20th century – including, as Lynda Mugglestone documents in her excellent history, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Famously false etymologies
This editorial fussiness may help to explain why, until recently, the most frequently cited theories about the origins of two common words, posh and tip, were complete fabrications. The story about the origin of posh may be the most famous false etymology in the English language: during the height of the British Empire, wealthy passengers traveling by ship from England to India advised each other to book cabins on the vessel’s port side when departing and the starboard side while returning, so as to enjoy a shady berth on both ends of the trip: in a helpful mnemonic, “port out, starboard home”. Language mavens also advised that the word tip, as in a gratuity for service, likely arose in the 18th century when English coffee-shop owners, or perhaps English innkeepers, set out dishes for coins along with a sign reading, “To Insure Promptness.”
The origin of ‘posh’
In fact, both posh and tip originated as underworld slang. Posh referred straightforwardly to money; for example, a dictionary of thieves’ cant published in London in 1859 carries the following listing: “A halfpenny is a brown or a madza saltee (cant), or a mag, or a posh …”. In a similar dictionary published that same year in New York City, the definition is the same, albeit with an anonymized denomination: “posh. Money; smallest piece of money.” (Historically, underworld slang has tended to be similar from continent to continent and coast to coast; as the saying goes, bad news travels fast.) In time, posh came to refer, metonymically, to a fashionable person – a person who looked like they had money – and finally it referred to fashion itself.
The origin of ‘tip’
Tip had an earlier origin; the term is attested in underworld glossaries from the Renaissance onward as meaning “to give”, whether in a material sense or the sense of passing on information. By the time posh started appearing in cant dictionaries, tip was already a fixture in literature about the underworld. For example, in his bestselling 1849 novel The Mysteries and Miseries of New York, Ned Buntline scatters the word freely through the dialogue of rogues and roués, usually in the phrase “tip us your mauley” – that is, “give me your hand”.
We know that the institution of gratuities existed in the time of Samuel Johnson; James Boswell, who followed Johnson around with a pen and paper, records him commenting about having given a waiter a penny for better service. But his dictionary does not include the word tip, and his contemporaries seem to use the word only when they are reaching for raffish diction. The preferential use of tip as a polite term for a gratuity rather than a low term for any gift seems to date only to the late 19th century; even after dictionaries recorded the new meaning, it took them a while to begin recording sample quotations that were far enough from polite literature to make clear the word originated not in England’s inns and coffeehouses, but in its alleyways. It isn’t clear exactly how the false story about the origin of tip came to be, or why so many people believed it; as one popular historian remarks, “The English would have bristled over such obvious extortion.”
Are there other words from thieves’ cant that might have served in place of tip and posh had history been just a little different? For tip, I favor the word bung, another word for give which appears in the same old underworld dictionaries. (A sample sentence: “‘Bung over the rag’, hand over the money.”) Leaving a bung for the server at a restaurant would be as dignified an action, I think, as leaving a tip, given that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
As for posh, any number of words might have served in its place; the lexical field of money, as some linguists might term it, has accumulated a deep bank of synonyms, both because money is a sensitive subject and because we tend to fetishize it. In America, slang terms for money in the 19th and early 20th centuries included: ace, balsam, blunt, brads, brass, bumblebee, can, case, case-note, century, chicken feed, chink, chinkers, chips, clover, c-note, coachwheel, dace, darby, deuce, dews, dibs, dots, double saw, double sawbuck, dragons, duce, fat, fin, finniff, g-note, gelter, goldfinch, greed, hard cole, honey, iron men, iron money, jack, kale, lush green, moolah, muck, Ned, negotiable grass, new light, ochre, plate, poney, push-note, quetor, quids, q.v., rag, ready, red, rhino, ridge, sawbuck, scratch, screaves, screen, sicer, skinny, slat, smackers, smelts, soap, soft, Spanish, sprat, stuff, sucrose, sugar, ten yards, threswins, thrums, tizzy, spondulicks, wad, wind, x-ray, XX, and yard. If you’re looking for a new term for fashionability, take your pick.
A final tip: if you are traveling by train from downstate to upstate New York, and you want to have the best views, “port out, starboard home” is excellent advice.