Sailing Trivia – POSH

Posh, an adjective describing stylish items or members of the upper class. A popular story derives the word as an acronym from “port out, starboard home”, referring to first class cabins shaded from the sun on outbound voyages east and homeward heading voyages west. The word’s actual etymology is unknown, but it may relate to Romani påš xåra (“half-penny”) or to Urdu safed-pōśh (one who wears “white robes”), a derogatory term for wealthy people.

The much-repeated tale is that ‘Posh’ derives from the ‘port out, starboard home’ legend supposedly printed on tickets of passengers on P&O (Peninsula and Orient) passenger vessels that travelled between UK and India in the days of the Raj. Another version has it that PO and SH were scrawled on the steamer trunks used on the voyages, by seamen when allocating cabins.

Britain and India are both in the northern hemisphere so the port (left-hand side) berths were mostly in the shade when travelling out (easterly) and the starboard ones when coming back. So the best and most expensive berths were POSH, hence the term. A very plausible and attractive explanation and it would be nice to be able to confirm it. The belief was widespread enough in 1968 for it to have been included in the lyrics of the song ‘Posh’ in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

O the posh posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
First cabin and captain’s table regal company
Pardon the dust of the upper crust – fetch us a cup of tea
Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh

There is no evidence to confirm this story though and it appears to have been dreamed up retrospectively to match an existing meaning. Whoever thought it up must have been quite pleased with it, and it appeals to enough people to get repeated endlessly. It also panders to the popular craving for the employment of acronyms as the explanation of common phrases – golf (‘gentlemen only, ladies forbidden’), cop (‘constable on patrol’) etc. These are nonsense but they keep cropping up. It’s worth remembering that acronyms are a 20th century phenomenon and researchers are hard pressed to find any examples before the 1920s. The word acronym itself wasn’t coined until the 1940s. Any such explanation of older words, like ‘golf’, or indeed ‘posh’, is sure to be false.

P&O say they have never issued such tickets and, although many tickets from that era still exist, no ‘POSH’ ones have been found. These have the status of an etymological Holy Grail and occasionally someone claims to have seen one. Needless to say that hasn’t yet been backed up with any evidence. Mind you, even if this mode of travel were the source of the phrase, there’s no particular reason that tickets would have been stamped with POSH, so the absence of such tickets doesn’t prove anything. The same goes for the alleged chalking of POSH on steamer trunks. The evidence for this is even less likely ever to come to light. The finding of luggage from that period with the appropriate chalkmarks is hardly evidence, as the marks could have been added ten minutes previous to the find. We would need photographic evidence that could be dated to the period of the Raj – needless to say, no such photos have come to light. The lack of any citation of ‘port out, starboard home’ in any of the numerous letters and literary works that remain from the British Raj is a more convincing argument against that origin.

The true origin of ‘posh’ is uncertain. The term was used from the 1890s onward to mean a dandy. George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, which began publication in serial form in the English satirical magazine Punch in 1888, has a character called Murray Posh, who is described as ‘a swell’. The book is a satire of the times and most of the character’s names are intended to match aspects of their personality, so it is quite probable that the Grossmiths used the name Posh with the meaning we currently know. The said Murray certainly looks posh enough.

By Tradewinds Instructor Ian Joseph

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