The term “posh” conjures up images of glamour, high class, and fancy accommodations. Clothes, hotels, and even accents can be posh. Most believe that the term comes from the days of travelers booking passage on a steamship of the P&O Shipping Line from Britain to India, Australia, and the Far East via the Suez Canal (Jeans, 2007, p. 102).
POSH on the P&O Line
The outbound trip from Britain would proceed through the Mediterranean, transit the Suez Canal, move south down the Red Sea, and eastward across the Indian Ocean north of the equator. Supposedly, passengers would try to secure a cabin on the port (left) side of a ship on this leg of the trip since it would be facing to the north (whereas the sun shines from the south). On the return trip, the directions would be reversed, so passengers would try to get a cabin on the starboard (right) side of the vessel. The obvious logic is that the cabins on the side of the vessel away from direct sunlight would be cooler (Jeans, 2007, p. 102).
It’s been said that the clerks booking tickets for the P&O line would stamp “P.O.S.H.” on first-class passenger tickets, indicating “Port Out Starboard Home” (Kemp, 1994, p. 664). A premium would naturally be attached to these tickets and the term posh came to indicate someone who could afford to pay for these select cabins and the associated comfort they afforded. Hence, posh refers to being well-off. Another theory is that the term is a corruption of the initials P.O.S.N., for the Pacific & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O Line) (Rogers, 1985, p. 134).
The problem is that researchers have been unable to find verifiable information that stamping P.O.S.H. on P&O Line tickets or documents ever actually occurred. In fact, there was no difference in price between cabins of the same class on one side of the ship versus the other (Jeans, 2007, p. 103). It’s debatable as to whether or not there would’ve been a noticeable difference in ambient temperature, anyway, since seas around the equator are very warm regardless.
Peter Jeans (2007) further asserts that it would’ve been unnecessary for a booking agent to even bother stamping P.O.S.H. on a ticket because they would’ve already known which cabins were on the port/starboard side of a ship and could’ve assigned passengers according to their preference. Of course, this isn’t to say that passengers never asked for port out, starboard home cabins. He further writes that the term posh actually comes from Romany (gypsy) slang meaning both a dandy and money. In 1839, it meant a farthing, a halfpenny, or a very small amount. Therefore, someone with “a lot of posh” was a dandy. Later, the term would be applied to comfort and convenience bought with money (p. 103).
Jeans, P.D. (2007). Seafaring Lore & Legend: A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable, and Fact. International Marine/McGraw-Hill.
Kemp, P. (1994). The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. Oxford University Press.
Rogers, J.G. (1985). Origins of Sea Terms. Mystic Seaport Museum.