I stopped off at my friendly local Oxfam store on the way home this evening, and came out with an interesting book: Port Out, Starboard Home and other language myths by Michael Quinion.
I had a discussion recently about the phrase ‘port out, starboard home’, and whether it’s the source of the term posh. It is not, according to Quinion:
“It’s a legend, though a very persistent one.”
The story goes that, back in the day, some passengers on boats run by the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company had their tickets stamped with ‘POSH’ to indicate that they would have a cabin on the port side on the way to India and one on the starboard side on the way back. That way, they would get the sea breeze, and shelter from the sun, during the hottest part of the journey. To afford these cabins, one had to be wealthy, and thus posh.
There’s no evidence to support the claim and P&O have denied the term existed, says Quinion.
He suggests other likely sources for the term, including the possibility that a character from George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody is the source:
‘Frank called, but he said he could not stop, as he had a friend waiting outside for him, named Murray Posh, adding he was rather swell.’
The most probable, however impossible to prove, is that posh is a London slang word for money. Quinion writes that the Romany word ‘posh’ was originally applied to a halfpenny, then any small sum of money, and then to money in general.
I’m looking forward to dipping in and out of this book and I’m reminded how long it’s been since I read Diary of a Nobody. Another one for the summer reading list, I say, I say.