Fact Check

Etymology of Pommy

Is the slang word 'pom' taken from the phrase 'Prisoner of His Majesty'?

Published Apr 26, 2001

Claim:   "Pommy" (or "pom"), a slang term for a British person, comes from the acronym POHM, which was used to designate a "Prisoner of His Majesty."

Status:   False.

Origins:   "Pommy" (or "pom" or "pommie") is a primarily Australian (and largely derisive) slang term used to indicate a recent immigrant from Great Britain, or

a Brit in general. The origins of "pommy" having been lost in the mists of time, someone needed to cook up an etymology for it, preferably one

equal to the pejorative sense of the word. Accordingly, we now have the story that criminals transported to Australia were designated "Prisoners of His Majesty" or "Prisoners of Mother England" (some versions claim the convicts bore one of these legends printed on the backs of their shirts), and thus the acronym "POHM" or "POME" eventually evolved into the slang term "pom" or "pommy."

This amusing anecdote is doubtful as anything more than a fanciful invention, as acronymic origins antedating the mid-twentieth century are automatically suspect, and the use of "pommy" has been recorded at least as far back as 1915. Moreover, nobody has yet turned up corroborating evidence that "Prisoner of His Majesty" or "Prisoners of Mother England" were actually common designations for criminals transported to Australia. The best guess at this time is that "pommy" was based on the word "pomegranate" — either because the redness of the fruit supposedly matched the typically florid British complexion, or because (like "Johnny Grant") it was used as rhyming slang for "immigrant."

Last updated:   8 July 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Ramson, William Stanley.   Australian English: An Historical Study of the Vocabulary, 1788-1898.

    Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1966.

    Room Adrian.   The Fascinating Origins of Everyday Words.

    Chicago: NTC Publishing, 1986.   ISBN 0-8442-0910-4   (p. 136).

    West, Paul.   The Secret Lives of Words.

    New York: Harcourt Inc., 2000.   ISBN 0-15-100466-8   (p. 210).

    The Compact Oxford English Dictionary.

    Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.   ISBN 0-19-861258-3.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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