Port out, starboard home

Where does the word POSH really come from?

Port = babordo
Starboard = tribordo

Today the English word posh is generally used to mean luxurious, elegant, fashionable or even upper-class, but where did the word come from originally? Well, the most popular story is that posh was first used by British travellers going out to India by sea from Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Being British born and raised, these travellers were not used to the heat of the southern sun and, if they were wealthy enough, they would book a cabin on the side of the ship which was not in the direct sunlight: the port (left) side of the ship for the outward journey and the starboard (right) side of the ship for the return journey. This led to the birth of the expression “port out, starboard home” and consequently, according to the story, also led to the invention of the acronym P.O.S.H. which was supposedly written on the tickets of these travellers.

Most modern reference sources tend to disregard this explanation since there is no written evidence of the acronym P.O.S.H. ever having been used in this way. The video above also debunks the theory on the grounds that a passenger starting his journey from India would need a different acronym S.O.P.H. (starboard out, port home) but this is a debatable point since, in my view, an Englishman starting his journey in India would still have considered it a return (home) journey and not an outward journey. The real problem is the lack of written evidence, but this does not in itself totally debunk the theory since the word posh could have been used only in spoken, colloquial English.

However, the more accredited theory is that the word posh comes from the Romani word posh-hórri meaning half-penny. The Romani people originally migrated to Britain from South Asia and Romani slang was in use in England at the end of the 19th century. This half-penny meaning could possibly have come to mean money in general and later the idea of possessing mony and therefore generally being wealthy. It is also known that in British slang at the end of the 19th century the word posh could also be used to refer to a dandy which may explain its current meaning of elegant and fashionable.

The truth is that there is no definitive proof for any of these possible explanations. Personally, I’m fond of the “port out, starboard home” acronym theory, however improbable it may be. The thought of expressions such as “travelling posh“, “going posh“, “having posh tickets“, “being posh travellers” appeals strongly to the whimsical side of my nature. It also leads me to imagine a hypothetical conversation at the turn of the 20th century:

“Good morning, Clifford. What splendid tidings do you bring with you on this cold winter’s morning?”
“Well, Edmond, the news is that Edith and I leave for India at the end of the month.”
“I say, that’s jolly good news indeed! Are you travelling posh?”
“Of course we are, my dear friend. You know how delicate Edith’s skin is these days.”

Who can say if such a conversation may one day actually have taken place.

 P.S. Amongst the papers in my family archives I recently found part of a letter written either by my great-great-grandfather or by my great-great-uncle sometime in the 1930’s in which it says: “I am going out to Cape Town on the port side of the boat and returning on the starboard side.” Evidently this method of travel was still being used in that period.

Author: Tony

Born and raised in Malaysia between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Educated at Wycliffe College in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, England. Living in the foothills of Mount Etna since 1982 and teaching English at Catania University since 1987.

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