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Doesn't the word "posh" come from "port out, starboard home"?

We do not know the precise origin of the adjective posh, meaning "elegant, fashionable," but nearly everyone else seems to. Every year we get dozens of letters informing us that posh comes from the first letters of the phrase "port out, starboard home," which designated the most desirable accommodations on a steamship voyage from England to India and back.

To Great Lengths

The most elaborate version of the story associates the practice with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, which from 1842 to 1970 was the major steamship carrier of passengers and mail between England and India. The P. & O. route went through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The cabins on the port side on the way to India got the morning sun and had the rest of the day to cool off, while starboard ones got the afternoon sun, and were still quite hot at bedtime. On the return trip, the opposite was true. The cooler cabins, therefore, were the more desirable and were reserved for the most important and richest travelers. Their tickets were stamped P.O.S.H. to indicate these accommodations–in large violet letters, according to one recollection. This account of the origin of posh was even used in advertising by the P. & O. in the 1960s.

The Story Won't Float

But the story won't float. The first appearance of the acronymic origin in print that we know of was a letter to the editor of the London Times Literary Supplement of 17 October 1935. The writer, an Englishman, wanted to enlighten the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement, who had marked its origin obscure; he identified port out, starboard home as "an American shipping term describing the best cabins." Why this phrase described the best cabins he does not say. The earliest association of the acronym with the P. & O. seems to come from A Hundred Year History of the P. & O., by Boyd Cable, which was published in 1937. The author calls it a "tale." And as late as 1962 the librarian of the P. & O. was unable to find any evidence that P.O.S.H. was actually stamped on anything.

A Stamp of Certainty

The most detailed and colorful account of the acronym in our files is a letter from a retired mariner who recalled in considerable detail (including the violet letters) how in 1913 he had seen such a P. & O. round-trip ticket in the possession of a man returning to Hong Kong. He had missed his P. & O. ship in Italy and was thus a passenger on the same ship (of a different steamship line) as the letter writer. This man, a European official employed by the Chinese government, had booked his trip in Hong Kong and was thus making the round-trip in a direction opposite to that of the English gentry on their way to the Raj. According to the theory, his ticket should have been stamped S.O.P.H. to assure him cool accommodations. But the writer recalls a violet P.O.S.H.

A Modern Invention

And come to think of it, why would the P. & O. clerks have to stamp anything on the tickets? Surely they must have known the location of every cabin by its number. We therefore conclude that if the practice of preferring cabins on the cooler side of the ship did exist–and it certainly seems reasonable–no acronymic P.O.S.H. (or its unmentioned opposite S.O.P.H.) was necessary on the tickets for such accommodations. And no evidence of its use has yet appeared. We further conclude, then, that the acronymic theory of the origin of the adjective posh is simply a modern invention.

University Slang

There are other theories to account for posh, one of which has been accepted by a few dictionaries. This explanation connects posh with English university slang from around the turn of the century. The earliest example of posh in print comes from a cartoon in Punch, 25 September 1918. It shows an RAF officer talking to his mother and has this bit of dialogue: "Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there."–"Whatever do you mean by 'posh', Gerald?"–"Don't you know? It's slang for 'swish']" This exchange is not incompatible with an origin in university slang, but earlier evidence is lacking.

A Push for Posh

The most tantalizing earlier connection is in a 1903 story by P. G. Wodehouse in his Tales of St Austin's. In the story a character remarks of a bright yellow waistcoat that it is "quite the most push thing of the sort at Cambridge." Unfortunately for posh, Wodehouse spelled it push. In the much later Penguin paperback edition of the stories, the editor, Richard Usborne, changed push to posh. When queried, he replied that he suspected the original push to have been a misprint. If it was not a misprint, he thought it might have been a mistake by Wodehouse, who had never attended a university and who had made a number of small factual errors about Oxford and Cambridge in other stories. If Usborne's surmise is correct, posh would have been university slang. But it is only a surmise, and we are left with the intractable push originally printed.

More Slang

Another possible source is a turn-of-the-century noun posh meaning 'a dandy'. This meaning is listed in two slang dictionaries of the period but without corroborative evidence. The Oxford English Dictionary Supplement could find nothing better for the sense than the nickname of a fisherman friend of Edward FitzGerald and a character Murray Posh, described as "a swell," in an 1892 novel. We don't know if this posh was ever used in print as a generic word.