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shameless pleading

Pish posh.

Oh, please.

Dear Word Detective:  From where does the phrase “pish posh” come? — Michelle.

Hey, that’s a good question.  As an aficionado of dismissive phrases (“High voltage?  Fiddlesticks!”), I’m always up for an investigation of the wonderful world of casting contemptuous scorn on the solemn pronouncements of other people.

Speaking of such things, there’s an old chestnut, almost certainly apocryphal, about a linguistics professor lecturing his class on negation in English grammar.  “In English,” he says, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”  Whereupon a voice from the back of the room pipes up, “Yeah, right.”

There are a few problems with that tale, including the fact that several popular dialects of English do indeed use “double negatives” (e.g., “ain’t nobody home”) to express a negative statement, and that “Yeah, right” in that context is sarcasm, not a double positive, but, aside from that, it’s a cute story.

Meanwhile, back at “pish posh,” I’ve been accustomed to using the form “pish tosh,” but “pish posh” actually wins the Google poll with 143,000 hits versus a mere 24,800 for “pish tosh.”  Both phrases, of course, do the job of meaning something between “Don’t be a silly goose” and “Gimme a break, dude.”  The advantage of “pish posh” is its air of gentleness and refinement, which means that you are less likely to earn yourself a bop in the nose with it than by snorting “Hogwash!”

“Pish posh” actually appears to have two sources.  “Pish” by itself has been used as an interjection of impatience or contempt since the 16th century, and, like “pshaw” and “pah,” it arose as an imitation of the sound of disgusted surprise (“‘Pish!’ I growled. ‘Someone has fooled you,’” 1894).

The “posh” part of “pish posh” is what linguists call “reduplication,” the repetition of a word with slight variation as a means of emphasis or elaboration (as in “hoity-toity”).  It has no connection to “posh” in the sense of “fancy” (which comes from the Romany language of Gypsies).

But there is another sort of “pish posh,” a variant of  “pish pash,” which is a stew made of rice and small bits of meat, usually chicken, popular in India. “Pash” is an old English dialect word for “smash,” here apparently referring to the small pieces of meat.  “Pash posh” (or “pish posh”) is apparently an 18th century Anglo-Indian invention, born of the long British colonial occupation of the country, and the term is said to have originally been “baby talk” used with children at mealtimes.

It seems plausible that the popularity of the impatient interjection “pish” among people familiar with the dish “pish posh” would have led naturally to the elaboration of “pish” with “posh,” giving us the ever-useful “pish posh!”

14 comments to Pish posh.

  • Hi. Great site. As a writer, I often (mostly) look for words used within a certain time frame (like civil war era) so that I know I’m being authentic. How can I make searches that will turn up words like these? Also, I may know a word or phrase in the modern context, like “Holy cow!”, but how do I find its equivalent in say, 1790? thanks for any advice.

  • Frank

    My grandparents used the phrase pish ‘n tosh to mean something that was silly or not true

  • roland delicio

    re: Pish posh, pishposh
    I am currently reading H.L.Mencken’s ‘Prejudices’ in the Library of America edition. Pishposh is used by Mencken as a dismissive on every third page, it seems.

  • Jon

    POSH, or reference for things “fancy” comes from a statement of preference in ocean-going travel from England to India a century ago. POSH is an acronym for “Portside Out, Starboard Home”. POSH accommodations meant a change of cabins so that the guest would have shady, cooler(north-facing, portside) accommodations for the eastbound trip to India and then switch to starboard for a shady ride home…

  • John

    It seems pish-tosh is actually better–a more gentile way of saying BS; and, Jon, yes, posh is an acronym for Port Out-Starboard Home.

  • John

    It seems pish-tosh is actually better–a more gentile way of saying Balderdash; and, Jon, yes, posh is an acronym for Port Out-Starboard Home. Okay. Maybe no longer BS, but rather “hogwash.”

  • MARK BARKER

    Stuart Land
    March 15th, 2009 at 1:16 pm · Reply
    Hi. Great site. As a writer, I often (mostly) look for words used within a certain time frame (like civil war era) so that I know I’m being authentic. How can I make searches that will turn up words like these? Also, I may know a word or phrase in the modern context, like “Holy cow!”, but how do I find its equivalent in say, 1790? thanks for any advice.

    I found Stuard’s query rather intriging – “It has been left unanswered – I hope someone will address it DIRECTLY and with factual or plausable authority!”

  • Stuart Land– I suggest that in order to find colloquialisms and idiosyncratic speech particular to a certain time or place that you spend some time browsing in popular literature from the same period. Moliere can give you a certain sense of 17th c. France, or Jane Austen for late 18th c. England. For the civil war period, you might look into Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Nathaniel Hawthorne– but be sure not to overlook dime novels and domestic fiction, both of which were extremely popular at the time and may have more “popular language” usage than the work of what we now consider “great writers.” Here’s a link that might be helpful http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/domestic.htm

  • Charlie

    Moliere really pumps my nads.

  • Dear Folks,

    Happily, I recently made the call, took a deep breath and ordered all twenty glorious Volumes of the OED, which now are just behind me and with one 180-degree spin of my swiveling desk chair, are before me, and thus I’m able to merrily seek all adjectives and adverbs that adequately describe them.

    “Pish” was used as early as 1592 an exclamation for contempt and also as a form of “piss”. “Tosh” meant neat and tidy in 1776, but later meant rubbish and twaddle in 1892, and was used as a school slang verb for splashing. Thus there were, no doubt, young lads who used combined the two to mean a “piss bath.”

    Ain’t Language Grand?

    Pax et Spes, john

  • Igor Minar

    Have you tried Google Ngram Viewer to search for word occurrence frequency in all books published within the last few hundred words?

    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=pish+posh%2CPish+posh%2Cpish-posh%2CPish-posh&year_start=1600&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

  • The “old chestnut” referred to above about the professor of language actually isn’t apocryphal. It’s such a fun story that I try to spread the word about it’s authorship whenever I get a chance. The response was from a well known philosopher professor, Dr. Sidney Morgenbesser from NYU – who sadly died in 2004. The event happened during the 1950s when British philosopher J. L. Austin visited Columbia to present a paper about the close analysis of language. He pointed out that although two negatives make a positive, nowhere is it the case that two positives make a negative. “Yeah, yeah,” Dr. Morgenbesser said. (Note, not “Yeah, right” as above).

    One can read about this anecdote and others in this obituary from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/04/obituaries/04morgenbesser.html

  • Perhaps I should clarify a bit more than in the obituary. Dr.
    Austin actually noted that in some languages, such as English, a double negative is a positive. In some other languages, such as Russian, a double negative is more negative. Dr. Austin stated that from his research he had found no language where a double positive is anything but positive. That is when Dr. Sidney Morgenbesser made his quip from the audience which was later shared and ultimately morphed into this delightful story. I think it’s important to clarify that professor Austin was contrasting between the ambiguous state of double negatives verses the seemingly single interpretation of double positives. Little did he know…

  • Aline

    An scottish friend of mine used to say all time “pish-pash-posh” telling us to hurry up. Just as we say “chop-chop”.

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