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!”