The Grammarphobia Blog

From outhouse to our house

Q: Are you familiar with the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the scene where Grandpa Potts is carried off in an outhouse while singing the song “Posh”?  One line of the lyrics says: “Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh.” Really?

A: We weren’t familiar with the 1969 movie or the outhouse scene, but we are now, thanks to the miracle of YouTube.

As for your other question, the answer is no, not really. “Posh” is not an acronym for “port out, starboard home.” Although this belief is widespread, it’s folk etymology.

The designation “port out, starboard home,” according to legend, indicated the best (that is, the coolest) accommodations on a steamship voyage from England to India and back in the days before air-conditioning.

The tickets of well-heeled passengers were supposedly stamped “P.O.S.H.,” but no such ticket has ever been found.

In fact, the origin of the adjective “posh,” meaning smart or fashionable, has never been pinned down.

A slang noun “posh,” meaning a dandy, appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though it’s now considered rare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The adjective “posh” first showed up during World War I, but it wasn’t until decades later that anyone suggested it was an acronym.

Indeed, acronyms were rare before the 1930s, according to the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, and “etymologies of this sort—especially for older words— are almost always false.”

Sheidlower made his remarks in The F-Word, a book whose subject is the source of several false etymologies (“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” “Fornication Under Consent of King,” and so on).

We’ll end with a quote from one of our favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse. In The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), Bertie Wooster has this to say about the noted nerve specialist Sir Roderick Glossop:

“Practically every posh family in the country has called him in at one time or another, and I suppose that, being in that position—I mean constantly having to sit on people’s heads while their nearest and dearest phone to the asylum to send round the wagon—does tend to make a chappie take what you might call a warped view of humanity.”

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