[This article is part of our ‘Life’s Many Mysteries’ series, where we try and answer burning questions that (at least vaguely) relate to surfing. Got a question you’d like the team to have a crack at? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Any brit who’s travelled in the Antipodes will likely recognise the following refrain, drawled at them by one of the region’s gentile local folk:
“Oooooh you’re a pom are yaaaa?”
But on such an occasion, have you ever stopped to wonder where the word came from?
If you, like me, become flustered with an etymology with loads of theories but no definitive answer, then this one’s likely to grind your gears a little bit. However, we’ve combed through the reams of literature to bring you something close to the best answer available on the world wide web. Don’t say we ain’t good to you here at the ‘Length. Let’s dive in shall we?
One attractive explanation claims the letters ‘POME’ or ‘POHM’ were stamped on the clothing of British prisoners in the late 1800’s, as an acronym of ‘Prisoner of Mother England’ or ‘Prisoner Of Her Majesty.’
However, this has been widely debunked, as none of the sketches or remaining clothes from the period (which still exist in lots of museums) bare any such markings.
I did go for this one at first, because it’s fun and it bears a resemblance to the true etymology of the word Nonce. We’re wildly off topic, but let me explain:
At the turn of the century, the letters N.O.N.C.E. was marked on the cell card of sex-offenders who the guards reckoned might be in danger if allowed to mingle with other inmates. It stands for ‘Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise,’ and was used to tell staff not to let the prisoner out of their cell when the courtyard was full of punch-happy paedo-haters.
Anyway, back to Pom. The most widely accepted theory goes that the word was originally a shortening of pomegranate. However, there is a dispute as to why Brits and the fruit became conflated.
The first theory is that visiting Englishman would go a bright red colour reminiscent of a ripe pomegranate after a few days of sun exposure, which seems legit. Another contests pomegranate is Aussie rhyming slang for immigrant, although after a few goes saying one word after the other I can’t quite seem to make that work.
The final theory states that British sailors trying to fight off scurvy would collect as many of the fruits as they could carry during stop-overs in Aus. This one might have a glimmer of truth, as it shares a common theme with the etymology of the Limey- another derogatory term for Brits- based on the scurvy prevention method of our ancient mariners. (They ate loads of limes).
The term Pom first popped up in around 1913, at which point, according to a Sydney Sun clipping, it eclipsed ‘new chum’ as the popular way to refer to Brits down under.
So there you have it. Next time some salty old purse calls you a Pommy, you can challenge him to a duel of wits by asking if he even knows where his slur originated. Because if there’s one thing an obnoxious Aussie loves, it’s being made to feel intellectually inferior by a smarmy Pom.