One of the earliest instances of posh is from a cartoon in Punch, or The London Charivari of 25th September 1918. An RAF officer is talking to his mother:
“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’*!”
[* swish: impressively smart and fashionable]
The word posh is first recorded, as an adjective meaning smart, stylish, in The British army from within (1914), by the British author Charles Henry Cannell (1882-1947), writing under the pseudonym of Evelyn Charles Henry Vivian:
The cavalryman, far more than the infantryman, makes a point of wearing “posh” clothing on every possible occasion—“posh” being a term used to designate superior clothing, or articles of attire other than those issued by and strictly conforming to the regulations. For walking out in town, a business commonly known as “square-pushing,” the cavalryman who fancies himself will be found in superfine cloth overalls, wearing nickel spurs instead of the regulation steel pair, and with light, thin-soled boots instead of the Wellingtons which he is issued. It is a commonplace among the infantry that a cavalryman spends half his pay and more on “posh” clothing, but probably the accusation is a little unjust.
In Adventures of a Despatch Rider (1915), the British author William Henry Lowe Watson (1891-1932) used the word as a noun meaning affected upper-class behaviour or language (Spot is the servant of an aide de camp):
I have only known him [= Spot] serious on two subjects—his master and Posh. [...]
Posh may be defined, very roughly, as a useless striving after gentlemanly culture. Sometimes a chauffeur or an H.Q. clerk would endeavour to speak very correct English in front of Spot.
“’E [= he] was poshy, my dear boy, positively poshy. ’E made me shiver until I cried. ‘Smith, old man,’ I said to ’im, ‘you can’t do it. You’re not born to it nor bred to it. Those that try is just demeaning themselves. Posh, my dear boy, pure Posh.’”
And Spot would give a cruel imitation of the wretched Smith’s mincing English.
Similarly, the word is used as an adjective meaning typical of the upper classes, as, for example, in the following passage from The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), by the English writer Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975):
Sir Roderick Glossop [...] is always called a nerve specialist, because it sounds better, but everybody knows that he’s really a sort of janitor to the looney-bin.
Practically every posh family in the country has called him in at one time or another, and I suppose that, being in that position—I mean constantly having to sit on people’s heads while their nearest and dearest phone to the asylum to send round the wagon—does tend to make a chappie take what you might call a warped view of humanity.
Although the origin of posh in these senses remains unknown, it is likely that the word arose as a transferred use of posh in the sense of money or of posh in the sense of dandy, or of both of these. The semantic development may thus have been:
– either from money to moneyed, wealthy, and hence to upper-class and smart, stylish,
– or from dandy to upper-class and smart, stylish.
The noun posh in the sense of money is first recorded in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, on 8th July 1830. A certain Charles Wells “was indicted for stealing, on the 7th of June, 1 watch, value 22l.; 2 seals, value 8l.; 1 ring, value 1l., and 1 watch-guard, value 1s., the goods of George Toth, in his dwelling-house”. One Joseph Plummer declared to the Court:
“I have known the prisoner some time. On Monday evening, the 7th of June, [...] I asked if he had pawned the watch, and if he had, to give me the ticket—he said he had not pawned it, but sold it, but he had not got the posh (which means money) yet.”
In the sense of money, posh is probably shortened from Angloromani forms such as poshora and poshaera, denoting a halfpenny, a coin of small value, from European Romani paš, half, and xajera, xajri, xajro, hal’ris, penny (source: Angloromani dictionary – University of Manchester).
Certain Romani words have found their way into the secret vocabulary of the underworld. From there, they have crept into popular slang, and then, occasionally, have emerged unnoticed into standard usage of the host language. English, for example, has colloquialisms of Romani origin, including:
– pal, from Angloromani phal, brother, mate (based on Sanskrit bhrātṛ, related to the word brother)
– chav, either from Romani čhavo, unmarried Romani male, male Romani child, or shortened from British slang chavvy, baby, child, or its Angloromani etymon chavvy, child (based on Sanskrit śāva, the young of any animal).
The sense dandy of posh seems to have arisen from that of money. At least, the first definitions — which are also the first known instances — of the word in the sense of dandy seem to indicate this transferred use. The earliest definition is found in A Dictionary of slang, jargon & cant embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian slang, pidgin English, gypsies’ jargon and other irregular phraseology (1897 edition), by Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland:
Posh (society), modern term for money, originally used for a halfpenny or small coin. From the gypsy [...]. Also a dandy.
The second earliest definition is found in Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (1902), by John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley:
Posh, subs. (thieves’). 1. Money: generic, but specifically, a halfpenny or other small coin [...]. 2. (society). A dandy.