A ponce is an effete, pretentious, annoying person, who has an inflated self-image, puts on airs and wastes other people’s time: “No, you can’t have a glass of pink champagne — this is a pub, not the sodding Ritz, you ponce.”

The verb form often is used with “about” or prepositions of direction: “Stop poncing about and do something useful for a change”; “She suddenly had a hissy fit and ponced off.”

It combines suggestions of mincing and flouncing with a hint of putting on airs inappropriate to the more down-to-earth context. The adjective “poncy” inherits this sense of something affected and unnecessary or pretentious. “Smoked salmon? Isn’t that a bit poncy for a picnic on Clapham Common?”

The earliest meaning, from the Victorian era, was a pimp. By the 1930s, it was being used as a derogatory word for a gay man, but although this presumably gave rise to the present meaning, its undertones now are so faint that a ponce need no longer be a man at all.

The origin is not known, though the first recorded use of the word (in 1861) is in the form “pouncey.” The Oxford English Dictionary dutifully suggests a possible link with “pounce”; whether in the usual sense, or to a sense meaning to powder the face (related to “pumice,” which is apparently used for the purpose), it does not trouble to mention.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.

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