When something is posh it is luxurious, stylish, pretentious, one of the good things in life associated with wealth and high social status. Its origin is not known for certain, but the best guess is that it comes from a 19th century slang term for money that in turn is taken from a Romani (Gypsy) word.
That Romani word is påš, meaning half. It’s used in various forms like the Welsh Romani påš xåra, or half-penny, or the Angloromani posh-hórri. The English slang use of posh to mean money appears as early as 1830 in the records of court proceedings. From the Sessions Papers of the Old Bailey from that year:
He had not got the posh (which means money) yet.
From the sense of money developed the sense of someone with money. Barrère and Leland’s A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant 1888–90 glosses posh as “a dandy.” As does Farmer and Henley’s 1902 Slang and Its Analogues.
Posh, meaning upper-class, is definitely in existence by 1915. From Blackwood’s Magazine of that year:
Posh may be defined, very roughly, as a useless striving after gentlemanly culture.
There is a possible older citation in the sense of stylish. P.G. Wodehouse’s 1903 Tales of St. Austin’s contains the following line:
That waistcoat...being quite the most push thing of the sort in Cambridge.
It’s not certain what word is intended here. Was Wodehouse using another slang term? Did he mean posh, but just get it wrong? Did an editor, unfamiliar with the term, change what Wodehouse wrote? Later editions of the work often amend the line to read posh. In any case, it seems likely that Wodehouse’s usage is related to posh, but we can’t be certain.
Of course, we can’t leave the discussion of posh without touching on the apocryphal acronymic origin. Popular etymology has it that the word is an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home. Supposedly, this acronym was printed on first-class tickets issued by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company going from England to India. The port side on the trip out would have the coolest cabins (or alternately the cabins with the best view). The same would be true of the starboard cabins on the return trip. From this origin, sprang the usage of the term meaning swank, elegant, or fashionable. Unfortunately for this excellent story, no tickets with Posh stamped on them have ever been found and company records reveal no sign of the phrase. And this explanation doesn’t even appear until 1935, well after posh was established in the language. It is clear that this explanation was invented after the fact to explain the strange word.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton