Thursday, March 26, 2015

The wealthy ones

The wealthy ones

We have some intriguing ways of referring to those in our world who hold more wealth than the rest of us.

Elite came to English in 1823 from French, meaning a choice or select body, the best part. Its French source came from a Latin word meaning choose.

Swank came to the language in 1913, meaning classy or stylish. It appears to have come from the Proto-Germanic word meaning to swing, turn or toss. Linguists suggest that those with means may have been perceived to swagger, an act that might involve a bit of swinging, turning or tossing.

Nobody knows for certain where posh came from, but it showed up in 1914. Folk etymologies tell the tale of wealthy travelers who insisted on the very best cabins ships sailing from England to India had to offer, creating the acronym posh: port outward, starboard home, as such cabins would keep the travelers out of the sun on both stretches of the voyage. Though it’s a fine & plausible tale, etymologists can find no evidence to support the claim. A more possible source is the now-lost Romany word, posh, which meant half & was used by London street folk in the early 1800s to refer to a half penny. Posh was apparently also used to refer to passersby perceived as dandies. The etymological posh jury is still out.

In 1872 the term well-heeled appeared in America, meaning both having much money & being well-armed. In the mid-1800s in cock-fighting, a well-heeled bird had sharp spurs, allowing it to inflict maximum damage on its unfortunate opponents. Further back, 1817 a well-heeled Brit was one of the lucky folks who owned shoes.

Though it might appear that the Old French word riche, meaning wealthy & sumptuous, is the source of our modern word rich, it was actually the Old English term rice, meaning strong, powerful, of high rank, that gave birth to rich. The Old French word riche influenced how people used the word, but rich really started out as a word of power & strength. Intriguing, eh?

So good readers, was any of this surprising, unlikely, or worthy of remark?

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, & the OED.


  1. But I've always loved the Port Outward Starboard Home origin story for "Posh"! So it's reallya gypsy word? I guess that makes sense.

    I had never heard the "well-armed"/cockfighting definition of well-heeled. I thought it just meant people who could afford a cobbler to repair their shoes. Whoever started using "chicken" to mean "cowardly" never saw those well-heeled cocks fighting!

  2. Hi Anne,
    I agree, the folk etymology of posh is pretty great - folk etymologies often are. I'm with you on the chickens.


  3. Power & strength = rich. Yep, that's about right. Or I guess it should read; rich = power & strength. I never heard the folksy origin for posh. I love it. That's the room I would have wanted!

  4. Hi Christine,
    Like you, I am intrigued by the roots of "rich". Such bits of word history say a lot about our culture, though the message is sometimes a bit dark.