Friday, March 21, 2008

Simply the best

After stepping into the exotic world of Rosie Thomas’s 1940’s Cairo in Iris and Ruby, with it’s fairy-tale evocation of high-society romance among the British set escaping the war, I couldn’t help thinking of the word posh. I am after all this blog's Word Nerd.

Posh is a wonderfully succinct term that evokes the privileged world Thomas describes of dashing officers and their ladies at nightclubs and dinner parties, of servants and luxurious fashion—all made the more seductively ephemeral by the threat of invasion by the circling Nazi war machine. Appropriately the word gained favor during the Edwardian era and has been use ever since. It means, of course, “the best”—the best table at a restaurant, the best clothes, the best service, and so on, and invites images of plummy upper class accents, dinner jackets, and understated wit.

No one knows for sure what is the exact origin of the word. It might derive from a slang word for “dandy” or the Romany word, also posh, for "half" which became a London slang term for the halfpenny and later any sum of money during the 19th century. The theory—disowned by cranky old lexicographers (who are probably right)—that it’s an acronym coined during the days of the Raj is more fun, though. POSH, the theory goes, was a phrase used by upscale Brits traveling to India who wanted the most desirable berths aboard ship. “Port Out, Starboard Home,” is supposed to have been a code phrase for accommodation with the most shade—literally the “coolest cabins”—on an ocean liner sailing to and from India.

Whatever it’s provenance, humble or high, posh is a great word and one that should always be at hand when doing a crossword puzzle or playing Scrabble.


No comments: