Here in Britain we use the word, as a noun, to signify, perhaps pejoratively, someone who is socially superior, one of our betters, perhaps a relic of the class system that bedevils our society. As ever, Ian Dury exemplifies its usage in Billericay Dickie, “Oh golly, oh gosh/ come and lie on the couch/ with a nice bit of posh/ from Burnham-on-Crouch.” But where does posh come from?
What is clear in my etymological researches is that there often contending theories to sift through before determining which is the likeliest. This is certainly the case with posh. Of all the suggested origins, some of which I will mention here, the most likely is that it comes from the streets of London via the Romanies. In Romani, their language, posh means a half and from around 1830 in the argot of thieves, posh meant a coin of small denomination, such as a halfpenny. The thought that we might be on the right track is given additional credence by an entry in Slang and Its Analogues, volume five, edited by Farmer and Henley and published in 1902. There it defines posh as a term used by thieves for “money: generic, but specifically a half penny or other small coin.”
Searches of the literature of the time unearth a mention in James Payn’s The Eavesdropper: An Unparalleled Experience of 1888; “They used such funny terms as brads and dibbs and mopusses and posh…at last it was borne in upon me that they were talking about money.” In 1892 Montagu Williams reported in his Down east and Up West a conversation with a street singer who revealed his modus operandi for parting listeners from their cash. “That sort of patter I was just speaking of is the thing to get the posh, they’ll tell you.” In a time when money sorted the haves from the have-nots, it is easy to imagine that the sense could be extended to those who were socially superior.
Then we have a contribution from one of my favourite books, The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, also published in 1892, where one of the characters called Murray Posh is described as “quite a swell”. The success of The Diary may have kick-started the use of push in wider circles than the criminal and lower orders but it was not the word’s origin.
But the sense did quickly gravitate to one who was superior in their dress, another mark of someone’s superiority. In 1914 in The British Army from Within, E Charles Vivian wrote, “the cavalryman, far more than the infantryman, makes a point of wearing posh clothing on every possible occasion – posh being a term used to designate superior clothing, or articles of attire other than those issued by and strictly conforming to the regulations.” This may well be the sense in which it is used in a typically unfunny tag line in an issue of Punch from September 1918 where an officer from the RAF says, “Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there.”
An alternative theory is promoted by supporters of Walt Whitman who in his 1855 collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, who wrote, “cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf,/ posh and ice in the river…half-frozen mud in the streets.” But this is a completely different usage of the word and echoes the Yorkshire dialect word posh which means mud or slush. And where does it leave the oft-cited origin for posh, the acronym of Port Out, Starboard home, reflecting the preferred cabin arrangements for travelling to and from India by ship to avoid the worst of the sun? Well, P&O deny ever using it and the story dates only as far back as 1955.
As often is the way, the thieves have it.