A question from dearieme in this thread sent me to the OED’s new draft revision (Sept. 2010) of the etymology of posh, a perennial favorite of folk etymologists (no, it’s not from “port outward, starboard home,” and I’m surprised the OED dignifies that old wheeze with an entire paragraph):

Origin unknown.
  It is possible that the word arose as a transferred use of POSH n.1 [‘halfpenny,’ from Romani], POSH n.3 [‘a dandy,’ origin unknown] (compare quot. 1912 at POSH n.3 [“If he described another [tailor] as a great ‘posh,’ which means well-dressed, the whistle would place him in a.. ridiculous light”]), or both of these; the semantic development may thus have been either from ‘money’ to ‘moneyed, wealthy’, and hence to ‘upper-class’ and ‘smart, stylish, luxurious’, or alternatively from ‘dandy’ to ‘upper-class‘ and ‘smart, stylish, luxurious’.
  An alternative suggestion derives the word < Urdu safed-pōś dressed in white, well-dressed, also used as a colloquial and derogatory term for ‘affluent’ < safed white (safed (Old Persian saped)) + pōś covering, also ‘clothed in, wearing’ (< Persian pōś: see PAPOOSH n.). However, this poses phonological problems and there is no direct evidence for the transition into English.
  A popular explanation (still frequently repeated) is that the word is < the initial letters of the phrase port outward, starboard home, with reference to the more comfortable (because cooler) and more expensive side for accommodation on ships formerly travelling between Britain and India. It is often suggested that the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company stamped tickets for such cabins on this route with the letters P.O.S.H., whence the word. However, no evidence has been found for the existence of such tickets. See further G. Chowdharay-Best in Mariner’s Mirror (1971) Jan. 91-2.
  It is unclear whether the following shows an (earlier) variant of this word:
  1903 P. G. WODEHOUSE Tales of St. Austin’s 37 That waistcoat.. being quite the most push thing of the sort in Cambridge.

If you’re curious, as I was, about “PAPOOSH n.,” it’s “A Turkish or Middle Eastern slipper, usually made of soft leather” and comes from French papouch < Turkish pabuç shoe, slipper < early modern Persian pāpōš < foot + pōš (modern Iranian Persian pūš) ‘cover, covering.’ I wonder why they decided to change from ś to š for the same Persian sound between Dec. 2007 and Sept. 2010?


  1. And what about posh’s equally etymologically uncertain counterpart “oik” – something to do with ‘oikomania’, ‘oikosite’, ‘oi polloi’ or ‘oink’ maybe?

  2. marie-lucie says

    The French word for those slippers (always worn with the heel part tucked inside) is babouche (fem), not papouch.

  3. The English is papoush.

  4. Question: is there any genuine acronymic etymology?

  5. (Except techno stuff like RADAR, LASER and SCUBA.)

  6. There are lots of real bureaucratic acronyms, like NATO. There are also very many bureaucratic acronyms that don’t quite work, like Fanny Mae and NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence).

  7. Fact: My mother is on the NICE advisory board.

  8. I heard it’s very good, and (therefore) the Conservatives are closing it down.

  9. The French word for those slippers … is babouche (fem), not papouch.
    The modern French word, that is; papouch is from 1542. Of babouche, also borrowed into English, the OED says “The change from p to b is seen also in pasha, bashaw.”
    Question: is there any genuine acronymic etymology?
    There’s a good discussion at Wordorigins; as D Wilson says there, “acronymic etymologies in English were rare before WW II, very rare before WW I, apparently nonexistent before the 1890’s.”

  10. Charles Perry says

    I don’t think the term acronym was even coined until the 1940s. Before the swarm of acronymic bureaucracies, the only use people made of word initials was to write poems where the first letter of every line spelled some secret word (or your girlfriend’s name).

  11. Naafi?

  12. I think NAAFI (which Brits will be familiar with) must be one of the earliest acronyms? Navy Army & Air Force Institutes which has been about since the 1920s.

  13. There’s a false acronymic etymology for ‘cabal’ (from the OED):
    b. in Hist. applied spec. to the five ministers of Charles II, who signed the Treaty of Alliance with France for war against Holland in 1672: these were Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley (Earl of Shaftesbury), and Lauderdale, the initials of whose names thus arranged chanced to spell the word cabal.
    This was merely a witticism referring to sense 6; in point of fact these five men did not constitute the whole ‘Cabal’, or Committee for Foreign Affairs; nor were they so closely united in policy as to constitute a ‘cabal’ in sense 5, where quot. 1670 shows that three of them belonged to one ‘cabal’ or clique, and two to another. The name seems to have been first given to the five ministers in the pamphlet of 1673 ‘England’s Appeal from the private Cabal at White-hall to the Great Council of the nation..by a true lover of his country.’ Modern historians often write loosely of the Buckingham-Arlington administration from the fall of Clarendon in 1667 to 1673 as the Cabal Cabinet or Cabal Ministry.

  14. How long has “gulag” been around – it’s a Russian acronym isn’t it?

  15. Wrens?
    Most of these early ones seem to be military.

  16. There’s an account of the history of acronyms, as well as different explanations of what they are, in the Wikipedia article.

  17. How long has “gulag” been around – it’s a Russian acronym isn’t it?
    Yes, it stands for Glavnoye upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovih lagerei ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.’ The organization and name were created in 1930 (consolidating the earlier system of prison camps); the first English cite in the OED (1993 additions) is:
    1946 V. KRAVCHENKO I chose Freedom xxiv. 405 The Central Administration of forced labour camps—known as GULAG—was headed by the N.K.V.D. General Nedosekin… I recall vividly an interview which I arranged on Utkin’s orders with one of the top administrators of GULAG.
    It was used only for the name of the department until the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, after which it became the usual English word for Soviet camps and prisons collectively; the word is, I believe, much more common in English usage than Russian.

  18. Would I be right in assuming that лагерь comes from the German ‘lager’ in the sense of ‘camp?

  19. Only Zythophile would say “‘lager’ in the sense of camp”.

  20. Would I be right in assuming that лагерь comes from the German ‘lager’ in the sense of ‘camp’?
    Yup. It dates back to the time of Peter the Great.
    Only Zythophile would say “‘lager’ in the sense of camp”.

  21. “And what about posh’s equally etymologically uncertain counterpart “oik” – something to do with ‘oikomania’, ‘oikosite’, ‘oi polloi’ or ‘oink’ maybe?”
    Is that so uncertain? “Oik” is what their speech sounds like. The first time I saw that, I misread it as “orc” because I always thought of orcs as sounding Saxonish and crude.
    “Question: is there any genuine acronymic etymology?”
    As of actual words that no one remembers were once acronyms? Maybe not yet, but there are probably hundreds used as free-standing words that take all the normal affixes that words of their catwegory do.
    People ETS (End Term of Service – Army), EWI (Enter Without Inspection – CBP (Customs and Border Protection) all the time, and in all tenses. There is even one where the acronym has had a suffix added by analogy – ‘fobbit’ – someone who stays at the FOB (Forward Operating Base, ie. in safety, like a round little hobbit safe in the Shire). It has pretty much replaced the rather nastier REMF (Rear Echelon Motherfucker) especially since there is really no rear echelon in either Iraq or AfPak.

  22. We discussed oik here. No convincing etymology, though.

  23. “oik” is an acronym for Offly Inferior & Kommon.

  24. Popular letters on an envelope to ones girl friend was BURMA, and there were many naughty others .
    Words by the less informed or educated GNU and not members of the literary set were usually totaly ignored, unless picked up by society but with common folk speaking in flickers and on the goggle box and other mass communicating devices have made slang have come into the main stream of the upper percentile of literature.
    Thus pre-1914 when the masses did not have a say in daily affairs, many a means of utterances before WWI were lost, but that has changed and speech by the less erudite have come to the fore.

  25. ktschwarz says

    Language Hat quotes* the OED:

    POSH … Urdu safed-pōś dressed in white … < safed white (< Persian safed (Old Persian saped)) + pōś covering … (< Persian pōś: see PAPOOSH n.)
    PAPOOSH … foot + pōš (modern Iranian Persian pūš)

    and asks: “I wonder why they decided to change from ś to š for the same Persian sound between Dec. 2007 and Sept. 2010?”

    That was my question too. There’s a fresh bunch of readers here in 2022, maybe somebody knows more? My first guess was that the ś was a transliteration from Urdu, accidentally carried over into the Persian transliteration. But, as far as I can see from Wikipedia on the Urdu alphabet, ś isn’t a recognized transliteration for Urdu either, though it is for Hindi. Seems like a mistake, then. Anybody know more?

    And the same Persian word also appears in the OED’s etymology of PALAMPORE ‘richly patterned cotton cloth, originally made in India’ (2005):

    < Hindi palaṅg-poś bedspread, coverlet < palaṅg bed … + early modern Persian pōš cover (see PAPOOSH n.). [The spelling with r] perhaps arose as an inferred singular of perceived plural palampores

    and again under REDSHIRT sense 3 ‘member of a Pathan nationalist organization in British India in the 1920s’ (2009):

    after Pashto surx poš in same sense … itself perhaps after Persian surx-poš in same sense …

    So that’s two more votes for š in this Persian word. And furthermore, the OED includes many other borrowings from Urdu, dozens of which have this letter; I counted 15 that have been revised so far:

    badmash, bakhshi, cushy, gosht, munshi, mushaira, mussalchee, mussuck, pashm, pashmina, Peshawari, peshkash, peshwa, rogan josh, sharara

    (I didn’t know cushy was from Urdu!) All of them use š in the transcription of both the Urdu etymon and its Persian source, except Peshawari, “< Urdu Peshāwrī”; I wonder if they may have (carelessly?) written it that way because the name of Peshawar is well known in English.

    *with corrections of a couple of small errors:
    < safed white: “white” should not be italicized
    (safed (Old Persian saped)): insert “< Persian”

  26. ktschwarz says

    As of March 2023, all three instances of pōś in OED’s etymology have been changed to pōš. So it was just a mistake.

    The same Persian word meaning ‘cover’ may also show up in tarboosh (‘hat, same as or similar to a fez’ < Arabic) and sarposh (lid of a vessel). Many dictionaries derive the tar in tarboosh from Persian sar ‘head’, with various speculations for why the initial s changed to t. However, Corriente rejected this origin entirely and instead proposed a derivation from Spanish into Arabic. AHD changed its etymology in its 2011 edition to follow Corriente:

    [Modern colloquial Arabic ṭarbūš, perhaps from Spanish traposo, ragged, or trapucho, old rag, worthless item of clothing (perhaps used as a slang term for the tarboosh, the typical male headwear of the Maghreb, by Moriscos who settled in the Maghreb after their expulsion from Spain in the 1600s) , from trapo, rag, from Late Latin drappus, cloth, perhaps of Gaulish origin.]

    Further discussion in Mateusz Urban, The Treatment of Turkic Etymologies in English Lexicography:

    According to [Corriente], the reluctance on the part of Spanish Muslims to wear headgear („la conocida aversión de los musulmanes españoles en sus primeros tiempos a cubrirse la cabeza”; also see Stillman 2003: 91) may have led Moriscos to refer to the fez as traposo ‘rag-like’ or trapucho ‘(little) rag’ (a diminutive of trapo ‘rag’), when they reached eastern Arab lands after being expelled from Spain. The shaky element in this scenario is its reliance on an otherwise unattested word usage the Spanish of Moriscos, although lack of record is not surprising in the case of colloquial, slang terms.

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