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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.

bigbrother0074


quality posts: 0 Private Messages bigbrother0074

Posh Adams?

Does the same thing apply to S.H.I.T.?

xavieratizol


quality posts: 0 Private Messages xavieratizol

Swag DID stand for "stuff we all get." It's a nickname for the bags that people receive, like gift bags at the Oscars. It's more popularly used as shorthand for swagger these days, but it was an accepted acronym long before that episode of the Office.

Jason Toon


quality posts: 19 Private Messages Jason Toon
xavieratizol wrote:Swag DID stand for "stuff we all get." It's a nickname for the bags that people receive, like gift bags at the Oscars. It's more popularly used as shorthand for swagger these days, but it was an accepted acronym long before that episode of the Office.



"Accepted" doesn't mean "right". "Stuff we all get" is a backronym somebody made up long after "swag" was used to mean "gift bags".

Think of the "jolly swagman" in "Waltzing Matilda", carrying his stuff in a bag. Snopes, of course, has more.

ruberad


quality posts: 2 Private Messages ruberad

How about O.K. -- did President Andrew Jackson really have trouble spelling Oll Korrect?

ThatPoshGirl


quality posts: 32 Private Messages ThatPoshGirl

I'm flattered by the attention, woot.

ThunderThighs


quality posts: 618 Private Messages ThunderThighs

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Jason Toon wrote:"Accepted" doesn't mean "right". "Stuff we all get" is a backronym somebody made up long after "swag" was used to mean "gift bags".

Think of the "jolly swagman" in "Waltzing Matilda", carrying his stuff in a bag. Snopes, of course, has more.



At one place I worked, SWAG was Silly Wild Ass Guess. We used it for scheduling projects.



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jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag
ruberad wrote:How about O.K. -- did President Andrew Jackson really have trouble spelling Oll Korrect?



As far as I know, the derivation is more or less right, but the origin was a running joke of poorly-abbreviated phrases in Boston newspapers. "NG" (Not Good) was one without misspelling.

The Van Buren campaign picked up on it and took it national.

Most linguists seem to speculate that the Boston joke came from a prior verbal fad, which I guess could've been linked to Jackson, who's also linked to the term via the Chocktaw -okii suffix ("it is").

Not that there aren't a few dozen more hypotheses, but these seem the best-documented and most generally plausible.

"Hello" has a much weirder history, I think.

Wyzeguy719


quality posts: 0 Private Messages Wyzeguy719

I like the term "backronym". I remember when I first came across "wiki" as a term online and - after thinking about it for a minute - thought maybe it stood for "What I Know Is". Then I found out that enough other folks had that same idea that it had become a standard, though incorrect answer for "What does 'wiki' mean?"

cordydan


quality posts: 4 Private Messages cordydan
bigbrother0074 wrote:Posh Adams?

Does the same thing apply to S.H.I.T.?



Store High In Transit

PocketBrain


quality posts: 47 Private Messages PocketBrain
cordydan wrote:Store High In Transit



Sounds like a bunch of bovine store high in transit to me.

Also, Posh's born surname was Spice, dur.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

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bigbrother0074 wrote:Does the same thing apply to S.H.I.T.?



Yup! "Stinky Hunks In Toilet." Thanks for asking.

And congrats on knowing Posh's Spice-era surname! I'm ashamed to say I blanked and had to look it up.