POSH – Port out, starboard home

What's the meaning of the phrase 'POSH – Port out, starboard home'?

To be posh is to be elegant, swanky, rich.

Also, briefly in mid-20th century UK, posh was used to mean ‘nonsense’.

What's the origin of the phrase 'POSH – Port out, starboard home'?

‘Port out, starboard home’ might be rather a strange inclusion on a website about phrases, for, as we shall see, it isn’t much of a phrase at all.

The much-repeated tale is that ‘Posh’ derives from the ‘port out, starboard home’ printed on tickets of passengers on P&O (Peninsula and Orient) passenger vessels that travelled between UK and India in the days of the Raj.

Britain and India are both in the northern hemisphere so the port (left-hand side) berths were mostly in the shade when travelling out (easterly) and the starboard ones when coming back. So the best and most expensive berths were ‘port out, starboard home’ – POSH, hence the term. It’s a very plausible and attractive explanation and it would be nice to be able to confirm it. The belief was widespread enough in 1968 for it to have been included in the lyrics of the song ‘Posh’ in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

O the posh posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
First cabin and captain’s table regal company
Pardon the dust of the upper crust – fetch us a cup of tea
Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh

However, here’s where evidence takes a hold and leaves plausibility behind. There is no evidence to confirm this ‘port out, starboard home’ story though and it appears to have been dreamed up retrospectively to match an existing meaning.

Whoever thought it up must have been quite pleased with it, and it appeals to enough people to get repeated endlessly. It also panders to the popular craving for the employment of acronyms as the explanation of common phrases – golf (‘gentlemen only, ladies forbidden’), cop (‘constable on patrol’) etc. These are nonsense but they keep cropping up. It’s worth remembering that acronyms are a 20th century phenomenon and researchers are hard pressed to find any examples before the 1920s. The word acronym itself wasn’t coined until the 1940s. Any such explanation of older words, like ‘golf’, or indeed ‘posh’, is sure to be false.

P&O say they have never issued such tickets and, although many tickets from that era still exist, no ‘POSH’ ones have been found. These have the status of an etymological Holy Grail and occasionally someone claims to have seen one. Needless to say that hasn’t yet been backed up with any evidence. Mind you, even if this mode of travel were the source of the phrase, there’s no particular reason that tickets would have been stamped with POSH, so the absence of such tickets doesn’t prove anything.

The same goes for the alleged chalking of POSH on steamer trunks. The evidence for this is even less likely ever to come to light. The finding of luggage from that period with the appropriate chalkmarks is hardly evidence, as the marks could have been added ten minutes previous to the find. We would need photographic evidence that could be dated to the period of the Raj – needless to say, no such photos have come to light. The lack of any citation of ‘port out, starboard home’ in any of the numerous letters and literary works that remain from the British Raj is a more convincing argument against that origin.

The character Murray Posh, in Grossmith’s Diary
of a Nobody, is either the origin or an early use
of the term ‘Posh’.

The true origin of ‘posh’ is uncertain. The term was used from the 1890s onward to mean a dandy. George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, which began publication in serial form in the English satirical magazine Punch in 1888, has a character called Murray Posh, who is described as ‘a swell’. The book is a satire of the times and most of the character’s names are intended to match aspects of their personality, so it is quite probable that the Grossmiths used the name Posh with the meaning we currently know. The said Murray certainly looks posh enough.

Posh would seem to be a strange surname to pick unless it was intended to convey a specific meaning.

The first recording of ‘posh’ in print that seems unequivocally to fit the current meaning of the word is a cartoon which contains this dialogue between an RAF officer and his mother, also in Punch, September 1918:

Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there.”
“Whatever do you mean by ‘posh’, Gerald?”
“Don’t you know? It’s slang for ‘swish'”

In his 1903 Tales of St. Austin’s, P. G. Wodehouse used the word ‘push’ to mean much the same as we now use ‘posh’:

“That waistcoat… being quite the most push thing of the sort in Cambridge.”

Posh is also the Romany word for money and this was current throughout the 19th century. This originally meant halfpenny, which, inflation allowed for, is a long way from poshness.

Oddly, given the ‘swanky/rich’ meaning of posh, the word was also used in the 1920s to mean ‘nonsense/rubbish’. That meaning appears to be unrelated to the ‘swanky’ source and probably derives as an alternative to ‘bosh‘.

The English gentlemen poet Edward Fitzgerald is another possible source of the word. He had what newspapers of the day (around 1908) described as ‘most unaccountable admiration and friendship’ for his boatman Joseph Fletcher, who was known as ‘Posh’. In Fitzgerald’s words, Posh was “A great man. A man of the finest Saxon type, blue eyes, nose less than Roman, more than Greek, and strictly auburn hair that any woman might sigh to possess”. Later writers have accounted for that admiration and, in these more permissive days, it wouldn’t be necessary to read between the lines of Fitzgerald’s quote.

Whatever the origin is, it isn’t likely to match the appeal of the P&O story and, although it is evidently wrong, that’s the one that people prefer to repeat.

Trend of starboard home in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.