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Posh, adjective.

Aristocratic or high-class. The term, first recorded in 1918, can be used as one of commendation, meaning simply “rather swell”: “Wow, your house is very posh.”

This is the original meaning, but nowadays, equally often — especially when applied to people — it has derogatory undertones, suggesting a stuck-up, upper-class twit who is out of touch with ordinary people: “Who was that posh git?” In fact, “posh git” is a common combination. (“Git” is a term varying from mildly to highly offensive, whose literal meaning is “bastard.”)

It usually rhymes with “nosh,” but occasionally, to match its meaning, is pronounced humorously with an affected long vowel like the vowel in “note.”

There is an urban legend that “posh” originated as an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home” — supposedly the shaded side of the ship in voyages from England to the Indian colonies and back, and hence the side where important people were given cabins. Supposedly, the letters P.O.S.H. were even stamped on their tickets. There is absolutely no foundation to this story, however.

A more likely derivation is from the 19th-century thieves’ slang “posh” for money, which earlier referred specifically to a small coin and probably comes from the Romany word for a half. Alternatively, it may come from an earlier slang word “push,” which occurs as school slang in an early story of P.G. Wodehouse — later famous for his stories about Jeeves, valet to that poshest of people, Bertie Wooster.

Mark Wainwright is a PhD student in the linguistic department at Cambridge University.


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