Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Origins: helpmate and posh

From my Word a Day calendar:

Helpmate The existence of the synonyms helpmeet and helpmate is the result of an error compounded. God's promise to Adam in Genesis 2:18, as rendered in the King James version of the Bible (1611), was to give him "an help [helper] meet [fit or suitable] for him." The poet John Dryden's 1673 use of the phrase "help-meet for man," with a hyphen between help and meet, was one step on the way toward the establishment of the phrase "help meet" as an independent word. Another was the use of "help meet" without "for man" to mean a suitable helper, usually a spouse, as Eve had been to Adam. Despite such usages, helpmeet was not usually thought of as a word in its own right until the 19th century. Nonetheless, the phrase "help meet" probably played a role in the creation of helpmate, from help and mate, first recorded in 1715.

(I noticed at the wedding this weekend that the pastor, who quoted that passage from Genesis, used both "help meet" and "helpmate.")

Posh "Oh yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there." So in Punch for September 25, 1918, do we find the first recorded instance posh, meaning "smart and fashionable." A popular theory holds that it is derived from the initials of "Port Out, Starboard Home," the cooler, and thus more expensive, side of ships traveling between England and India in the mid-19th century. The acronym POSH was supposedly stamped on the tickets of first-class passengers traveling on that side of ships owned by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam navigation Company. No known evidence supports this theory, however. Another word posh was 19th- and early 20th-century British slang for "money," specifically "a halfpenny, cash of small value." This word is borrowed from the Romany word pash, "half," which was used in combinations such as pashera, "halfpenny." Posh, also meaning "a dandy," is recorded in two dictionaries of slang, published in 1890 and 1902, although this particular posh may be still another word. This word or these words are, however, much more likely to be the source of posh than "Port out, Starboard Home," although the latter source certainly has caught the public's etymological fancy.

(The acronym etymology had caught my fancy, too, although I can't for the life of me remember where I heard it. I do know it was years and years ago, before I had much of a specialized interest in such things. How such things get started is fascinating.)


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