The Debunker: Is The Word "Posh" An Acronym?

by Ken Jennings

Let’s face it—what do any of us really know about language? If you had a gun to your head, could you tell me the difference between “farther” or “further,” or spell “minuscule” correctly? To make matters worse, a lot of the things you think you know about words are probably wrong. In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4!) we’ll be debunking dialectical deceit all month on Woot. Was your ninth-grade English teacher’s classroom a house of lies? Find out from 74-time Jeopardy! champion (and self-proclaimed grammar Nazi) Ken Jennings.

Language Myth #2: “Posh” Stands for “Port Out, Starboard Home.”

Since the 1930s, people who like to seem “in the know” have been asserting that the adjective posh, meaning luxurious, is actually an acronym—that, in fact, it once stood for “port out, starboard home,” the shadier and therefore more expensive cabins to book on an ocean liner to and from India, an abbreviation which was stamped on first-class tickets. This folk etymology has worked its way into popular culture—I remember it as the chorus to the Sherman Brothers’ song “Posh!” from the not-otherwise-memorable score to the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In fact, there’s not a shred of evidence that such an abbreviation was ever used on British ocean liners, despite a plethora of surviving tickets, and in fact it wasn’t possible to book a return cabin at the time of an outbound voyage. Different word origins for posh have been suggested over the years—could it be a corruption of push or polished?—but there’s now a consensus that it comes from Romany (gypsy) slang posh-koroona, meaning “half a crown.” Nineteenth-century slang dictionaries record posh as entering English as criminal slang for money before it came to mean upper-class.

Similar stories of purported acronymic origin have been told about other words, including tip (“to insure promptness”) and the notorious f-word (“for unlawful carnal knowledge”). These phony etymologies are actually a type of “backronym” (retroactively constructed acronym) and are invariably false. (Remember Michael Scott’s insistence on an episode of The Office that “swag” stood for “stuff we all get”?) Posh and tip are both erroneously claimed to be acronyms in The View from Saturday, a Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel about genius quiz kids by E. L. Konigsburg, the celebrated author of books like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Ah, E. L., you really should have known better.

Quick Quiz: What was Posh Spice’s surname during the Spice Girls era, before she married soccer star David Beckham?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.