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24 August 2007

Still a class thing

As part of our series looking at the issue of class and 'poshness' in 2007, we ask the Head Master o

By Anthony Little

I am drawn to quizzes, but then I am a teacher. So I could not resist the on-line posh test: answer the questions and see how posh you are. Some of the questions were what one might expect (“Do you know anyone called Rupert?”) and some were a reflection on modern living (“Does your family eat an evening meal together at the dinner table?”). Some others were confusing: “Do you keep your carrier bags?” Is this economic prudence or re-cycling, I wonder?

At the end of it I discover I am 50% posh – I read books, but I don’t go hunting – and I feel strangely dislocated. The questions seemed to cancel each other out. The notion of “poshness”, it seems, is a slippery thing.

I was always told that the word derived from the Port-Out-Starboard-Home ticket for the privileged few on sea voyages. Yet the shipping lines, apparently, never had such an order. It is as if the word came into being to describe a rather vague idea of privilege or social style and its meaning has become even more diffuse with the passing of the years. Posh is as posh is seen.

There is, though, a particularly British angle on this. Americans also use the word “posh” but it tends to describe objects – the sumptuous furnishings of an apartment, the styling of a car. The British use the word of things, too, but also of people. It is a class thing. Even after all this time. Even when society is a complex, shifting set of relationships.

Much of the language of “poshness” seems tired and dated, a lame joke or lazy mud-slinging, the knee-jerk “toff” taunt, but insofar as it draws attention to attitudes and pricks bubbles of complacency it has a purpose and can be inventive. The idea that elective caesareans have become a lifestyle choice for convenience, for example, is succinctly encapsulated in the phrase “too posh to push”.

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Yet, strangely, the language is not entirely negative. The word is used kindly to describe a friend’s glamorous choice of clothes or a celebratory night out.

I spend a great deal of my time with teenagers, in my own school and in many other places I visit. For many of them the word doesn’t really register – it is one of those quirks of historic language that float by them. For those for whom the word does have meaning, the responses are predictably mixed..

Some see posh in the narrow sense an eighteenth century critic might have viewed Society, all style and accent. Some of those described in this way will play it up for all it is worth, largely because it feels racy and politically incorrect. Most use the word to define a position. I well recall a bright 16 year old who saw virtue in being avowedly un-posh. He liked the rough and tumble of debate and exchanging ideas. It came as a shock to him to meet people of his own age who saw his attitude as, well, posh. It is a fact that for many teenagers reading the New Statesman is seriously posh.

Posh is “other”, not the normal. It may be attractive and beyond us, or it may be pretentious and ridiculous, but, in any event, it is not really where we see ourselves.

Does any of this matter? On one level, not a lot – banter finds many forms. But it matters a great deal when young people limit their horizons by dismissing experiences and possibilities – art forms, ideas, different people, an examined and enriched life. Having the self-confidence to experiment and to engage, to see beyond the stereotype, is a telling mark of a good education.

Read more from our series looking at the issue of class and ‘poshness’