We might have solved one of the great linguistic mysteries of our time (OK, one of the terribly minor linguistic controversies of our time): the origin of the word “posh”.
As we all get told this stands for “port out, starboard home” for this is how the richer, posher, people travelled out to India back in the day. Something to do with how the sun shines through the portholes.
The problem with this is that no linguist has been able to find anyone ever actually using the word in such a sense when people were indeed being sunned through portholes on trips to India. The assumption is that posh as P.O.S.H., it being an acronym, is something we’ve made up to explain the existence of the word in hte language, rather than how the word came into the language (I’m sure there’s a proper name for that process as well).
So, I see this clipped from the NYT:
There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari.
And there we see the word posh being used, in the wild, in another language. Could this be the origin?
Actually, I’m sure that some (if not many or even all) linguists have got here before me but as this is an original thought I’d like to record it (umm, yes, I know, “parts of this book are original, parts are good, unfortunately, the parts that are original are not good and the parts that are good are not original” type stuff here. This may well be the linguistic equivalent of rediscovering the wheel: “Oooh, roundy thing!”).
So, Dari is really the Afghan version of Persian or Farsi (not sure how far apart they are, French and Italian? Erse and Scots Gaelic? American and English?) and the “bacha” refers to “calf or young man/boy”. It’s the “posh” which refers to being “dressed up”.
But why would a Persian word end up in English and associated with the Raj at that? We didn’t after all, conquer the place.
Ah, but Persian was the court language of the Mughal Emperors and yes, all those East India Company officers from the inception of the company through to at least the Indian Mutiny did indeed learn Persian (umm, OK, many of them did then).
So we have a word in another language which means “dressing up” and we have that same word in English which means, in at least one meaning of it, “dressed up” (even now, someone dressed up in a penguin suit can be greeted with the “My, you do look posh”). And we have the crossing of the two languages at roughly the time and place where we first see the word turning up in our own English language. And it’s even associated with the Raj, which is where our folk derivation places it.
Me? I’d call that a knockout.
But then as we all know, I’m not a linguist alas: either someone’s got there before me or, worse, someone’s considered it and rejected it. Not original and wrong to boot would match the usual Worstall track record.
So for the present I’ll put this in the “original” bin and wait for you lot to tell me whether it’s right or wrong.