Ever heard a Brit call another Brit ‘posh’? You might have thought it was a compliment. Here’s why it most certainly was not
Who doesn’t remember the Spice Girls? Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger and, of course Posh Spice. We all know the meaning of scary, sporty, baby and ginger. But what does ‘posh’ mean – other than being super skinny and having a pointy nose?
In her Spice Girls days, Victoria Beckham took on the role as ‘the posh one’ because of her refined attitude, form-fitting designer outfits and love of high-heeled footwear. However, and perhaps ironically, good old Vicks is not actually what people in the UK would describe as posh.
While elegance and stylishness play some part, the most important factor in determining whether someone is posh, is a person’s accent. One Brit knows if another Brit sounds posh within milli-seconds of meeting them. Once it’s established that a person sounds posh, it’s assumed that they are posh, meaning they come from a privileged, wealthy background and are probably related to the Queen.
This is a very contentious issue in Britain, because the country as a whole still struggles with social mobility. If you’re born into one of the higher classes it’s a lot easier to become a top lawyer, a judge, a senior government officials, a university professor and, well, Queen.
David Cameron’s government was mockingly referred to as a ‘Chumocracy’ because the people he placed in powerful positions made up a web of chums (posh for ‘friends’): old colleagues, old flames and Old Etonians (fellow students of private boys secondary school Eton College).
On the other hand, some people get ahead for the very reason they are not posh. Take the current mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. He became the city’s first ‘un-posh’ mayor in eight years after beating Zac Goldsmith (most definitely posh) at last year’s election. There’s no doubt that Khan was elected in part thanks to his working class (and NOT privileged) background, which he highlighted time and time again during his campaign and in his victory speech. Playing big on the fact that he was the son of a bus driver and had grown up in social housing, he promised to be a mayor “for all Londoners”.
And if you listen to him talking you will hear a stark difference between his accent and that of, say, Zac Goldsmith or Boris Johnson.
But such cases are the exception, rather than the norm, especially in politics.
Can’t you just learn to sound posh?
Yes, certainly. And a lot of people try. The basis for a posh accent is to have no accent at all. In some social circles, the absence of a recognisable regional or local accent will already make you posh – or at least more posh than you would be if you had your original accent.
However, while changing your accent might help you be taken seriously in some groups of people and it might even help you get a job, it won’t help you break into the highest tiers of British society.
For that, you have to at least have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, and preferably have gone to private school, and, even better, come from a long line of affluent generations, who would have introduced you to all the people who matter years ago anyway.
What makes a posh accent?
Step one: Lose the regional accent. If people can tell where in Britain a person is from because of the way they speak they won’t pass as posh. Victoria Beckham, for example, is clearly from Essex.
Step two: pronounce all your Ts without swallowing them. Enunciate your Os and As just like the textbook teaches them.
Step three: Introduce posh phrases into your vocabulary, such as ‘Oh, crumbs!’ – instead of ‘Oh, crap!’, ‘chunder’ instead of ‘vomit’ ‘Yah’ instead of ‘Yeah’, ‘yah’ instead of ‘year’, ‘mummy and daddy’ instead of ‘mum and dad’ and, for the older generations, use the term ‘one’ instead of ‘you’ for general statements. Example: ‘How would one go about opening this box?’ instead of: ‘How do you open this box?’.
Step four: Fully embrace the posh: wear chinos and polo shirts. Pretend you’re friends with people called Horatio, Tabitha, or Octavia (Yes, even certain names are considered posh in Britain). Take up tennis and cricket. And regularly eat cucumber sandwiches and bread pudding.
So is being posh good or bad?
It depends who you’re talking to. When posh people are amongst each other, being posh is just a given and not something you would ever discuss.
However, if a Brit who isn’t posh decides that someone else is, the sense of alienation and division is instant. If you hear one Brit talk about another by saying: “God, he’s so posh!”, that’s never a compliment. It might be delivered with a laugh, but the sentiment is one of resentment – almost the same as saying: “God, he’s got so much and has done so little for it! He’s so lucky and I’m not. Life isn’t fair. I hate him!”
For that very reason, posh people who are friends with ‘normal’ people often go to lengths to sound less posh, so as to not constantly draw attention to their privilege. They might do things like swallow their Ts and refrain from using terms such as ‘Oh crumbs!’. But their friends will always know they’re one step down in the social pecking order. And if they forget, they’ll be reminded of it every time their friend accidentally mentions how much fun fox hunting is and how funny it was running into Victoria Beckham at the Ascot races.