Friday, November 4, 2011

posh


I know this should have been Posh Spice. Couldn't face it.

The last post brought up some reflections about the word 'posh'. This one isn't so much about what the word means, since we all probably have an idea of that, but more where it comes from. In England and the greater British Isles it definitely seems to have an echo of class consciousness in it. In America, I think it's more known than used, at least in a serious way. So what did it originally mean? I'm sure it's obvious, but somehow I can't quite put my finger on it.

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"Origin uncertain". The popular imagination has it that it refers to the expression 'port outward, starboard home,' which referred to the preferred ship reservations for the tony class on the passage to (and from). It first came into print in Punch in 1918 in the following sentence: "Oh yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there."  (I have to throw that in, because it reminds me that for some reason, my dad and I believe his brother-in-law, my uncle used to address my grandmother, their in common mother-in-law as Mater, and I realize that I really have no idea why. They weren't British or posh.)

Apparently, there is no evidence to support this theory. Another, supposedly better conjecture is  that  the word posh originally meant 'dandy' round about 1890, and this in turn came from thieves' slang for money. Then the claim is that this hails back to the Romany or Gypsy language, with 'pash' meaning half, and pashera, 'half penny'. Slang seems more likely in this case, as there always seems to be a faintly derogatory whiff to the word, do what you will.

It seems this word and its derivations is one of those things people do often ask about, at least so they think here. I was glad to find this very appropriate quote from Anatoly Liberman:
"Another post suggested that I temper my enthusiasm, because people are allegedly interested not in etymology, but in "words and slang; they ask about posh or the whole nine yards. They'd see no point in asking for etymologies of water, wind, wool, winter, well, [and] wine," unless those "could be illustrated with lantern slides of Life in Roman times." I've been taught never to assume anything and not to generalize in a hurry. This advice I'll pass on to anyone who will take it. Queries reflect the sophistication of the questioners. The more people know, the less trivial their questions become. If they realized how interesting the etymology of water, wind, wool, and the rest is, they would have asked about it."

No post about the word posh would be complete without a nod to the fabulous 'Posh Nosh'. If you've never heard of it, here is the first episode. It's not long.

53 comments:

  1. What fun, all around! Thank you for this. I had just watched Gosford Park, and I am happy to be introduced to Posh Nosh, too!

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  2. Seana

    Did you ever hear of the Port Out Starboard Home theory? Apparently it was for nabobs going from Britain to Inida. On the Port side you got all the best scenery. Also apparently its a complete and utter myth.

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  3. I had read the port out/starboard home theory, and it always struck me as too elaborate to be believable. It reminds me of the idiotic assertion one will occasionally read that fuck is an acronym for for unlawful carnal knowledge.
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  4. Peter

    I did believe it, but apparently its complete bollocks like the fuck one.

    Seana

    I know you dont cite this as a possibility I suspect posh comes from polari.

    You dont know what polari is?

    Well thank heavens for wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polari

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  5. Kathleen--

    If I introduced one more person to the delights of Posh Nosh, then my work here has not been in vain.

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  6. Adrian, I not only heard about it, but I mentioned it and its discrediting in the post.

    Not true, but you can see why it might be given credence in the popular imagination. I certainly would have bought it if I hadn't heard otherwise.

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  7. Peter, thanks, that's a fascinating article. It seems like Polari must be the intermediary slang that brought it from the Romany gradually into common parlance.

    Polari sounds a lot like English in it's ability to incorporate other languages and argots into itself.

    By the way that link didn't work for me, so in case that wasn't just my own doing, here is another link to wiki polari.

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  8. Sorry, that polari article find was Adrian's.

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  9. I see that “naff” is listed a Polari word. Is that the same “naff” that occasionally crops up in English and maybe Irish crime novels?
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  10. Peter, I guess we will have to wait and see if any of our friends across the pond respond.

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  11. Seana

    I missed the ship ref. See thats what happens when I read anything before my coffee. Good job I'm not flying planes.

    Yup "naff off" is polari. "Rough trade" is a polari expression now I think understood everywhere. Posh sounds polari to me, I'll bet it is or got popularised through polari.

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  12. Yeah, in a similar way, normally I can distinguish between your and Peter's comments quite well, but coming off our annual two day sale, I'm surprised I can read at all.

    Polari is a great thing to know about. I'm sure you're right on this one.

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  13. I've seen naff as a noun or an adjective more often than as a verb ("naff off"), I think.

    V-word: flartle

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  14. Flartle seems like a good candidate for polari. I wonder if it is still an evolving language.

    I think I always thought that naff meant naive, or maybe artless.

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  15. I wondered if "naff" comes from "naive."

    A Spanish speaker could probably pronounce (and spell) my current v-word better than I could: conio

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  16. Seana

    I read somewhere that because of the mainstreaming of the gay community in London polari is dying out. Cockney rhyming slang is still going strong however.

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  17. I know some Cockney rhyming slang, largely due to long exposure to Eastenders.

    It's a shame that Polari is waning, but all it takes is another subculture to need it for there to be a resurgence, I suppose. Maybe I should inform Occupy London about it. With the whole human microphone thing, they could all learn it fast.

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  18. Of course, 99% isn't really a subculture.

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  19. Speaking of Cockney rhyming slang, I recently read this beguiling etymology for berk. I also learned about Marseille verlan slang from Jean-Claude Izzo's crime novels. Anyone interested in Cockney rhyming slang might want to give it a look.

    The first part of my word cannot, in fact, be often applied to the second: sanedin
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  20. I suppose I learned it too then, because I read the Marseilles trilogy. But that's not to say I retained any of it.

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  21. One nice thing about verlan slang is that its name is an example of its rules of word formation. Verlan is a reversal of the syllables of l'envers, or backwards.

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  22. I like that. I'll have to take a look back at all that. I've got a couple more Izzo's lined up to read anyway.

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  23. I've only read the Marseille trilogy, but some of his other books have looked interesting. I'm not sure how much crime fiction he wrote other than the trilogy.

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  24. The one that interested me from over on the Europa Challenge blog was A Sun for the Dying.

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  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  26. Blogger must have found my comment appetizing because it ate it.

    I wrote that I seem recall one Izzo book that might appeal to readers who liked the pleasure he took in describing food in the Marseille novels. I think it had "garlic" in the title.
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  27. Now we know. Blogger doesn't like garlic.

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  28. And of course one of my favourite criminal argots is Shelta which I used a lot in Falling Glass. Its a mix of Irish, English, backwards Irish, Cockney rhyming slang and completely made up words. Its good stuff is Shelta. One of the disappointments about that novel was the fact that no one really noticed the Shelta stuff at all. All the reviewers just assumed it was Irish and many of the Travellers who speak Shelta are, sadly, illiterate so they werent buying the book in droves. (In fact no one was buying the book in droves, hence no US publisher).

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  29. Yeah, I was thinking of the Shelta stuff from Falling Glass in relation to this today. Loyal readers of your blog will know that Gerard Doyle, the reader for Audibles of the book, certainly must have noticed the Shelta. I should listen to that one, actually. I bet the Shelta stands out more.

    I may have mentioned here before that the reason I went to Ireland was that my sister was in an Irish dance competition and so I flew over with my nephew. I didn't get to see the competition because my nephew was still in school at the time it happened. But anyway, they won their story telling category with a tale of a Tinker wedding (I think) and she had some interesting experiences around all that, mostly positive. Although she heard some gripes against them too.

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  30. Peter, I think you're on to something.

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  31. Seana

    Yeah the Shelta drove Doyle mental. He asked me how to pronounce certain words and of course I had no idea because I'd got them from various books and notes I'd made so he had to track down a professor of philology at the University of Ulster and ask him.

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  32. I have to say that I do like that he's such a stickler. I still haven't heard one of your books on audio. I actually haven't heard any books from Audible even though they are always offering a free download.

    I should try and correct that.

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  33. He could have checked with Brad Pitt.

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  34. Peter, yes, Brad has a reputation as a genius of philology, so that would have been the obvious choice.

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  35. Thanks, Peter. I have to say, though, that most of those words didn't sound all that unfamiliar.

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  36. That won't matter if you see the movie. Not a word Brad Pitt's character says is comprehensible. I just sent you the article so you would see I wasn't taking the piss when I mentioned his name a few comments above.

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  37. I saw the movie. He was best in the fight scene, I think.nome

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  38. More than one fight scene, I recall. I remember the movie as a mass of fighting, fire, and incomprehensible speech.

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  39. Peter, Seana

    One time Leah and I were in Carrickfergus and a Tinker came to the door. Leah answered it and then had to come and get me. There's a someone at the door, she said, I dont understand him at all, he's speaking Irish.

    I went to the door and in fact he was speaking English.

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  40. Peter, I was only thinking of that one fight scene in the dark with torchlights. I think there was kickboxing involved. I don't actually remember a whole lot else about the movie this far out. I only went to see it in the first place because Benicio del Toro was in it, and I think they killed him off in the first five minutes.

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  41. Adrian, well, no fault to her. I think I've mentioned somewhere the time my friend and I happened to be in Edinburgh at the time of a folk festival, and one of the things we did was go and hear some sample of storytelling from out in the countryside that someone had diligently collected on a tape recorder. We could make hide nor hair of anything we heard and the only way we knew that the teller had reached some sort of end was when everyone else started laughing. Of course we started laughing too, though only at our own utter bafflement, so that was alright.

    Are you sure that tinker wasna't playing some sort of trick on you?

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  42. Adrian, I once posted some links to Hamish Imlach singing and received a few comments from folks startled if not befuddled by his accent. These included a fellow from Fife.

    And I posted recently -- I forget where -- about my favorite accent, described to me by one of the speaker's fellow Brits as a little Scouse, a little Irish, a little Northumbrian, and "a few other things."
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  43. Stephen Fry doing some northern British accents.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yynL6FAza4c

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  44. Adrian, his pronunciation of accent is itself an example of a key difference between British and American English. He pronounces the second syllable unstressed, the schwa sound – acc’nt. Every variety of North American English that I have heard, on the other hand, pronounces the second syllable -cent.
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  45. I see you got your two cents in there, agmckinty. Actually four cents.

    I enjoyed that spin through the accents. The problem for Stephen Fry, though, is that he has already parodied every serious role in society he could ever hope to play.

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  46. My overseas trips the past few years have been to England, Scotland, and Ireland. This has broadened and deepened my appreciation of English accents. I never even knew what Geordie or Scouser were until just a few years ago.

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  47. Yes, English has spread so far now, that it really is quite incredible how many different ways it has been tweaked.

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  48. I've been reading some Scottish crime fiction, so I may start saying "nowt."

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  49. Well, they are a taciturn lot...

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  50. It is said that the finest (probably meaning having a long tradition) English is spoken in English as the linguistic forms have been traced back to the time of Elizabeth I, when people knew how to talk proper.

    Here's a short post on the subject:

    "http://widgetinghour.blogspot.com/2011/11/finding-ones-voice.html"

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