Bacha posh: is this where \”posh\” comes from?

We might have solved one of the great linguistic mysteries of our time (OK, one of the terribly minor linguistic controversies of our time): the origin of the word \”posh\”.

As we all get told this stands for \”port out, starboard home\” for this is how the richer, posher, people travelled out to India back in the day. Something to do with how the sun shines through the portholes.

The problem with this is that no linguist has been able to find anyone ever actually using the word in such a sense when people were indeed being sunned through portholes on trips to India. The assumption is that posh as P.O.S.H., it being an acronym, is something we\’ve made up to explain the existence of the word in hte language, rather than how the word came into the language (I\’m sure there\’s a proper name for that process as well).

So, I see this clipped from the NYT:

There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari.

And there we see the word posh being used, in the wild, in another language. Could this be the origin?

Actually, I\’m sure that some (if not many or even all) linguists have got here before me but as this is an original thought I\’d like to record it (umm, yes, I know, \”parts of this book are original, parts are good, unfortunately, the parts that are original are not good and the parts that are good are not original\” type stuff here. This may well be the linguistic equivalent of rediscovering the wheel: \”Oooh, roundy thing!\”).

So, Dari is really the Afghan version of Persian or Farsi (not sure how far apart they are, French and Italian? Erse and Scots Gaelic? American and English?) and the \”bacha\” refers to \”calf or young man/boy\”. It\’s the \”posh\” which refers to being \”dressed up\”.

But why would a Persian word end up in English and associated with the Raj at that? We didn\’t after all, conquer the place.

Ah, but Persian was the court language of the Mughal Emperors and yes, all those East India Company officers from the inception of the company through to at least the Indian Mutiny did indeed learn Persian (umm, OK, many of them did then).

So we have a word in another language which means \”dressing up\” and we have that same word in English which means, in at least one meaning of it, \”dressed up\” (even now, someone dressed up in a penguin suit can be greeted with the \”My, you do look posh\”). And we have the crossing of the two languages at roughly the time and place where we first see the word turning up in our own English language. And it\’s even associated with the Raj, which is where our folk derivation places it.

Me? I\’d call that a knockout.

But then as we all know, I\’m not a linguist alas: either someone\’s got there before me or, worse, someone\’s considered it and rejected it. Not original and wrong to boot would match the usual Worstall track record.

Hmm. An original theory according to this. And here. Here. Here. Even Oxford dictionaries.

So for the present I\’ll put this in the \”original\” bin and wait for you lot to tell me whether it\’s right or wrong.

12 comments on “Bacha posh: is this where \”posh\” comes from?

  1. it seems to have appeared by 1830- online sources state that it was used for “money” probably from a Romany word. This would predate the first British expedition to Afghanistan I think; if it were afterwards you could have argued that soldiers brought it back.

    Given how many phonemes exist in each language these coincidences are very common and have become source of many crackpot theories stating that Basque came from Hebrew, English came from Hebrew (British = brit ish or “human covenant” in Hebrew) etc etc. I wouldn’t get too excited (sorry).

  2. “The assumption is that posh as P.O.S.H., it being an acronym, is something we’ve made up to explain the existence of the word in hte language, rather than how the word came into the language (I’m sure there’s a proper name for that process as well).”

    Backronym.

  3. Yeah – I’d get excited – even it’s only getting excited about having an original thought – I’m sure you’ll have another one sometime:-).

    Linguistics is full of just so stories, without much proof (that’s not knocking linguistics) and if it came from the Mughal court then wouldn’t need Brit involvement in Afghanistan.

    It is tenuous at the moment, but that’s a grand start.

  4. The problem with this is that no linguist has been able to find anyone ever actually using the word in such a sense when people were indeed being sunned through portholes on trips to India.

    And I believe there is no evidence that berths on vessels were actually sold in this way. The use of acronyms was also very rare at the time, so any word origin before the twentieth century (or even in the first half of the century) that is blamed on an acronym should be considered suspect without definite evidence.

    The Australian expression “pom” or “pommy” meaning “Englishman” is often claimed to come from the convict days, when new convicts sent from England were supposedly referred to as POHM (Prisoner of His Majesty) or sometimes POME (Prisoner of Mother England). This is clearly false, as there is no evidence that anyone was ever referred to this way. The theory that it is rhyming slang – “pomegranate” rhyming with “immigrant” – is more convincing, as word formation of this form is common in Australia, but you still can’t prove it.

    Even the US military slang “FUBAR”, believed by everyone to stand for “Fucked up beyond all recognition” does not necessarily have its origins in an acronym, quite possibly originally having been a corruption of the German word “furchtbar”, meaning broken, with the acronym actually having come later.

  5. OK, a bit off topic, but close: I have always thought “viking” came from the German “ficken”, “to f*ck”.

    We think the Vikings said they were “going viking” meaning “to raid”. They were going to rape too so if it makes sense to me that they were really saying “we’re going f*cking”. More sense than the goofy stuff in Wiki anyway.

  6. something we’ve made up to explain the existence of the word in hte language, rather than how the word came into the language (I’m sure there’s a proper name for that process as well).

    The usual name is ‘folk etymology’ … but there might be a posher one.

  7. Tim, you could be onto something. The English language has words from just about every country the British Army or whomever has set foot. I would put ‘posh’ as in your bacha posh in the same group of words – in terms of how and why it would have been used – as those from India such aspukka.

  8. Given that both “mufti” and “khaki” entered the English language at the same time from the Mughal court (and both referring to different types of clothing) it is at least plausible.

    On Port Out Starboard Home I suspect that this is a coincidence in terms of timing. One thing to note, however, is that it is to do with the prevailing wind that blows sand from Egypt to Israel. Hence on the way out, you want Israel on the left (port) and on the way back on the right (starboard) to avoid getting gritty.

    Not sure the berths were sold like this, but it was definitely a social preference.

  9. I can give you a name. Turner Macan, who was Aide and Interpreter in Persian to the Governor General of Bengal in the 1820’s-30’s. He was a leading Orientalist and closely connected to the Royal Asiatic Society. Also family connections were deeply involved in Eastern languages and in particular constructing grammars. Macan was also a Master Freemason. It was Macan who was credited with saving the Shah Nameh of Firdausi from oblivion and with early versions of the Arabian Nights. He was an ancestor to the 14th Earl of Home. See my blog and tap in Macan to the search.

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