Decorated initial C

ontroversy rages here from time to time over the port-out-starboard-home theory of the origin of posh. But P&O categorically deny they ever stamped P.O.S.H. on tickets. (They argue they knew which side of the ship cabins were on. So did the pursers and the stewards. They didn't need reminding.) One lexicographer in one of the dictionaries says — and you can almost hear him sigh — it's wrong but too good a story to go away.

Posh is a word with subtle shifting meanings all tied up in a changing class system. I may be putting my head above the parapet here (or even on a chopping block) but I'm not sure that posh, with its present meanings, could have been used by the Victorians. It doesn't seem to fit the Victorian mindset. Toff, a derogatory word for the rich, was perhaps all they needed, and it's always been cruder and less subtle than posh. Was Victorian society ready for the nuanced undertones we detect in the modern word?

Posh, today, is used in two main ways; one benign, one more condemnatory. A small child might be pleased if you say her party-going frock is posh. You can say to somebody who is all togged up for a night out "you do look posh" when all you mean is she is more smartly dressed than usual. You can call a restaurant posh because it has clean cloths and silver-looking knives on the table. A hotel can be posh if the staff are attentive and deferential, and the prices are too high; the quality of the cooking is immaterial.

More factually, it's used to describe a certain type of person and often carries a hint of hostility. Nobody, I imagine, calls themselves posh. In fact, not many people are. The Queen isn't, for example. Her accent used to be, but time and demography have modified that. Sir John Betjeman — Poet Laureate, campaigner for all things Victorian, and a man who yearned for poshness — was not posh either; he was irredeemably suburban, even Pooterish. He mixed with, and married into, posh society; one girl friend was the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire. The Cavendishes — the Duke's family name — are very posh. But what if we could teleport the Victorian Duke who employed Paxton and meet him today? I'm not sure posh would be the first adjective to come to mind. Poshness can have a subtle connotation of vacuity and the old Duke doesn't seem to have been at all vacuous. A few years ago, somebody coined the phrase Sloane Rangers to describe the girls in Alice bands who haunt the Sloane Square area of Knightsbridge. They are rich, pedigreed, vacuous, and insolent: now they are posh.

Murray Posh is not posh. He's a nouveau rich middle class swell. Lillie Girl is what working class women would once have called 'common'. ("Mutton dressed as lamb" also comes to mind.) Breeding is necessary to poshness. Posh persons are well-bred. Sometimes they appear ill-bred in the sense of being discourteous to people they regard as inferior (just about everybody). But even that may be too unsubtle: it's not so much their manners as their manner which is offensive. Posh carries a connotation of haughtiness. Or at least that can be the perception of unposh people on the receiving end.

Being perceived as upper crust is no longer always an advantage, and some posh younger people have adopted a new accent called Estuary or Estuarine, a kind of modified Cockney spoken in towns along the Essex bank of the Thames. (Cockney more properly is a dialect, not just English spoken badly). In the mid-twentiethth century some lower middle class people affected posh accents perhaps as a way of acquiring a feeling of self-worth but also of distancing themselves from the workers. Grossmith distinguishes between Pooter's grammar and the less educated speech of his maid and charlady, but accent is never suggested by the spelling in the way that Kipling does. When did the posh accent begin, I wonder? Wordsworth spoke with a Westmorland accent (he once wrote bank-note as bank-naught: note/naught are homonyms in the north, both pronounced 'naught.') I always thought Tennyson had a Lincolnshire accent (perhaps because he wrote some poems in dialect) but a recording of him reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (textdiscussion) says otherwise. Browning too spoke posh (there's a recording of him reciting — and forgetting — his poem about taking the good news to Ghent. He calls it 'varse', by the way.) Queen Victoria, it's said, had a German accent.

The evolution of the word can also be followed through citations in the Oxford Dictionary. In 1918 an RAF officer, as reported in Punch, said to his mother: "Oh, yes, mater, we had a posh time down there" referring to the comfort — or lack of active discomfort — on his airfield in France. (The war was within weeks of its end, by then.) In 1923, in The Inimitable Jeeves, Wodehouse wrote: "practically every posh family in the country has called him in at one time or another." By 1929, J. B. Priestley could write: "I'd like to have . . . a very cosy car, small but frightfully posh." ('Frightfully' is a very posh word in its own right. To make 'posh' sound even posher, incidentally, it's sometimes pronounced 'poe-sh'.) In 1961 the phrase 'to talk posh' was quoted in reference to My Fair Lady, the musical version of G. B. Shaw's Pygmalion (written in 1916). A quotation from 1965 shows that young people were already feeling resentful of 'poshness' in teachers — it showed there was a social gap between them.

It's odd that we can still talk in this way since many people assure us the class system is dead. A majority tell pollsters they are middle class. No one claims to be upper, and only a minority say they are working class or proletariat (and many of them clearly are not.) All those old fine gradations have largely gone. Pooter, I'd argue (but not too seriously), is middle-lower-middle class; his boss, Mr Perkupp is lower-middle-middle class, and Murray Posh might just make it into the middle-upper-middle.

Toff, by the way, may also have been a Victorian coinage. It was first recorded in 1851 in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. "If it's a lady and a gentleman, then we cries "a toff and a doll" (which is a bit pre-Damon Runyon.) Normally, I suspect, it carried a greater charge of harshness, of savagery, even hatred, than posh if only because the people most likely to use it were rougher. But toff, too, also had a softer meaning — if some one behaved well, or generously, or decently, you could say "you're a real toff". But I haven't heard it used in that way for very many years and even then only by older men. Toff is a bit uncommon nowadays.

Its origin is also unknown; some say it's from 'tuft', the tassel on the caps of aristocratic Victorian undergraduates, though it's hardly likely that Mayhew's boys knew that. Others say it's short for 'toffee-nosed'. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to suppose that posh has been the same word throughout; starting as ha'penny from the Gipsy word for half, evolving to mean money, then people who had it (and flaunted it). As society changed — at once less deferential and more openly envious — so did the word's meaning. It's still very widespread, almost entirely now in its joking, slightly bantering sense. (Posh people keep a lower profile these days.) All the same, it's a nice thought that the highest people in the land can be described by a word once known only to the very lowest of Victorian crooks.

Related Material

Last modified 4 September 2006