Why are ships feminine in English?

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Have you ever wondered why ships are feminine in English?

I was told once that the best wood for a ship came from a tree which had male and female variants. The best wood for boats was from the female tree because when cut into planks, the wood sprang up at the right angle to create the curve of the bow. Not sure how true that is.

Other theories could be:

  • Many ships have female names. In many cases they are named after a loved one of the owner. So it is natural then to refer to the female-named ship as ‘she’.
  • Ships were also at one time often named after goddesses.
  • A queen ruled England at the time the sea became very important for many reasons.  Said queen was probably responsible for providing funds to allow ships to travel for military purposes, for exploration, or to bring back silks and spices from the East
  • Sailors spent more time aboard than with their wives or mothers so, over time, ships were seen as a parallel to a marriage and a family. This was particularly true centuries ago when boys became sailors at age 9 and were at sea for years at a time, seeing their loved ones very very seldom. The ship was their home and their livelihood.
  • While English as we know it today has hardly any grammatical gender, it is believed that English once had a more extensive system of grammatical gender. In most Indo-European languages with grammatical gender, the word for “ship” is feminine. In Old English texts, there is more evidence of grammatical gender, such as a shield being called she, which makes it logical perhaps that this is a remnant of an old grammatical system which no longer exists.
  • English sailors heard sailors from other countries using the feminine form for ships and began doing it as well.

Nowadays, ships have neutral gender in more and more dictionaries and are merely called ‘it’. Ships also often have masculine names. So this is a question which will, in time, be moot.

I was also thinking of other gendered nouns in English and I could think of Mother Nature and Father Time. Do you have any others that you can think of?

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

One thought

  1. Well Janet, my cute and classy Mini is definitely a he. No power steering or air conditioning, unless you count the rear hinged windows. Real driving! My husbands Land Rover, despite it’s power and hefty looks is a she! There is no explanation to it. Perhaps it depends on the sex of the owner or ,in the case of a ship, the captain. My dad was on the great aircraft carrier HMS Victorious and the sailors just called it a boat. All very contrary!
    Best wishes, Kathleen Carr

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