Posh Posher Jokey
Are you posh? Did you go to a posh school? Today we talk about the word ‘posh’ in English. Learning a language also means learning more common ‘slang’ terms used in everyday conversations and today we dig into the English class system while we explain the word posh. I think it’s true of most countries that wealthy people, people with enough money that they can live beyond the necessities of life, get called a name of some sort. Often not a very nice name, or just a name with associated privilege and inequality. It is often a slang word.
In the UK, like many other countries I am sure, you can identify wealthy people by their accents, the schools they go too and the clothes they wear the places they spend their money. And in the UK you would probably use the word posh to describe this group of people. In America, for example, you might call this group of people ‘the elite’, 'fat cats' or the ‘1%’ and I’m sure there is a word for this in your native language. So why not learn to speak English through listening and learn all about posh?
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Have you ever heard the English word ‘posh’? That’s spelt P-O-S-H, ‘posh’. It’s an adjective, a describing word – and it’s something which started off as quite a slang word. And ‘slang’, that’s S-L-A-N-G is informal, descriptive language. ‘Slang’ means words that start off being used by people who know each other well. They’re informal, sometimes jokey words. But little by little slang words become more and more used, more and more recognised. And words which started out as slang can eventually make it into the dictionary and become formally part of the language. So ‘posh’ wouldn’t be a word that you’d come across in any formal or ‘official’ report, but it is a word English speakers all know and use and it’s in the dictionary. ‘Posh’ is a word that you’ll hear in social conversation, or in descriptions, so while you might not meet it on a basic English learning course, ‘posh’ is a useful word for you to know.
So if we say that something or someone is posh, what do we mean? Well, it tends to relate in part to the British class system. If something or someone is ‘posh’, then it suggests that they’re middle or upper class. Depends where you are in the class system, I guess! Posh suggests that the person has money, probably has nice clothes, because they can afford them. Often it means ‘nice manners’ too and possibly a good level of education, though not always this. There are lots of ways that difference is shown and this is partly about the culture of the UK. But one of the differences between people that can be visible, or that people worry about is their ‘social class’. So ‘posh’ can be a description which shows someone’s social class. You probably say it, when you feel someone is ‘posher than you are’!
So where might you use the word ‘posh’? OK. Just let’s take a minute first of all, to remind you of the podcast download service from Adept English. Learning language is easier when you have lots of authentic, clearly spoken, easy English language to listen to. If you have lots of interesting English language podcasts on your phone, then you will do more English listening when you’re busy with other things. Going for a walk, or a run, exercising, cleaning your flat, travelling in your car, on the bus, on the train, wherever you are. You can use this time to improve your English language. And our podcast download service means that for a small fee, you can download 50 of our podcasts at a time! That’s hours and hours of English language listening that will really help your fluency, but you’ll be learning English grammar automatically at the same time. So go to our website at adeptenglish.com and have a look at the podcast download page today. Your English will be so much better after that many hours of English language listening!
Back to posh. So you might say, ‘Oh, we went to a really posh restaurant’. In this case, the restaurant is likely to be more expensive perhaps than the usual. There would certainly be white tablecloths and wine glasses on the tables. The menu and the service are likely to be very polite and genteel. A posh restaurant is likely to serve fine food, which is priced accordingly – and although the guests may not always be polite, the waiters and waitresses will be. In this context, ‘posh’ used to describe a restaurant, suggests that the restaurant is better quality, luxurious even – so a positive thing. Unless you don’t have much money and you have to pay the bill, of course!
A photograph of a huge luxury yacht cruising offshore used to show port and starboard.
You can also talk about ‘a posh accent’. So someone who speaks with Received Pronunication or RP – the way that The Queen or Prince Charles speak – they could be said to have a ‘posh accent’. But not everyone in the UK speaks as though they’re from the BBC! Learning English means learning to understand different accents too! If you have spent enough time in the UK to have acquired a British accent – or if you were born here, then there can be a lot of judgements made about you, because of the way that you speak, because of your accent. In some ways, if you have a foreign accent – and by that I mean that when you speak English you have an accent from a different country – then in many ways, you‘re not judged in the same way. What social class you belong to isn’t obvious from your voice. You avoid being judged in that way.
You can talk about ‘a posh school’. That’s likely to mean a private school. Private school means a school that you pay for, where there’s a good standard of teaching, but again there’s some focus on manners and ways of speaking. In the UK, only around 7% of people go to private school, but it’s still the case that they tend to secure the best jobs! And there are certain industries – like investment banking – that are unlikely to hire people who didn’t go to a posh private school!
So ‘posh’ can be used as a negative, particularly where there’s such inequality. ‘Inequality’ means that people not being treated equally because of their class. ‘Posh’ probably acquires a more negative meaning in certain parts of the country – probably the ones which aren’t posh. So if you hear someone say ‘Oh, he’s a posh git’ - that’s not positive, that’s not being said with admiration. What that means is that this person is middle or upper class and ‘I just can’t relate to him. I don’t like this person because he is a different class to me and he thinks he’s superior!’ That’s probably the meaning of it. So sometimes that’s what we call ‘inverted snobbery’- huh, there’s a whole other explanation for another podcast! So ‘posh’ is more likely to be used negatively in parts of the country which are themselves ‘less posh’. Almost a kind of insult sometimes!
So where does posh come from? Well, the old story is that when the well-off British people travelled to India on ships in the 1800s, they had posh, P-O-S-H stamped on their tickets. And this stood for ‘Port Out Starboard Home’. What you need to know to understand this is that on a ship, ‘Port’, P-O-R-T means the left hand side of the ship and ‘Starboard’, S-T-A-R-B-O-A-R-D means the right hand side. So ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ meant the cooler cabins, the rooms out of the hot sun. So on the left-hand side going out and on the right hand side coming back - ‘out’ meaning the outbound trip and ‘home’ meaning the homebound trip. So ‘Port Out Starboard Home’ tickets cost more – and therefore were bought by the more wealthy people. And thus the word ‘posh’ came into being. Or did it? If you research this online, then apparently there’s no evidence that this story is true! It’s what’s known as an ‘Urban Myth’ - it’s made up.
Instead, the most likely origin of the word ‘posh’ is that it comes from the Romany ‘posh-horri’ meaning a half-penny. Now this doesn’t sound like a lot of money to us, half-a-penny, but it was back then when this word was first used. And if this origin isn’t correct – and noone really knows - the word ‘posh’ appears in printed English first of all in the 1900s, being used to describe clothing and meaning ‘smart, stylish, fashionable, luxurious, expensive’. So if someone says to you ‘Put on your posh dress’ or ‘Put on your posh suit’, it means dress up, put on your best clothes. Look your best!
So hopefully at the end of that, you have a better understanding of the word ‘posh’ in English. Learning language also means learning some of the broader meaning behind the words, the context of the vocabulary. Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.