Magazine article The Spectator

Erudition without Tears

Magazine article The Spectator

Erudition without Tears

Article excerpt

Erudition without tears POSH: PORT OUT, STARBOARD HOME AND OTHER LANGUAGE MYTHS by Michael Quinion Penguin, £12.99, pp. 278, ISBN 0140515348

There never was a ticket with the word 'POSH' stamped on it by the P&O shipping line, which meant a passenger to India went out on the port side and returned on the starboard and got the best of the cooling breezes. So, where did the word come from? Michael Quinion says humans fear the unfamiliar and will go to great lengths to discover how a word or phrase came into being and remove its mystery. The mixture of laboured logic and startling inventiveness that gave birth to the word 'posh', though, is not completely unfounded. 'Posh' was originally the Romany for halfpenny and though it would have taken sackfuls of the stuff to get to India and back it was money. And in 1892 in the Grossmiths' The Diary of a Nobody a swell called Murray Posh oozing money turns up on the Pooter doorstep, and in 1918 it appears in Punch when an RAF officer says he's had 'a posh time'.

The real origins of the mysterious phrases that dot our language are equally absorbing. 'At sixes and sevens' means to be confused, but the phrase originally sprang from a legal ruling intended to do the opposite. The livery companies in the Middle Ages were a back-biting lot. Two such companies, the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors, fought over which was ranked six and which seven in the order of precedence. In 1484 the Lord Mayor ruled that one of them should be sixth for one year, and in the next it would drop down to seventh while its rival moved up to sixth. It's comforting to know this ruling is still in force.

Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil) when prime minister gave his nephew, Arthur Balfour, a succession of posts including the political hot potato, the Chief Secretaryship of Ireland in 1887, for which he appeared to be particularly unsuited. This was seen as shameless nepotism and so the phrase 'Bob's your uncle' took off. But the phrase was never found in print; if it had been in vogue it would certainly have been in Punch. Quinion concludes that the explanation remains that everything is safe, the meaning given to it in a Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785.

Norman Mailer's publishers forced him to drop the unprintable word from The Naked and the Dead in 1948 and to use 'fug' instead. …

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