Why is a Ship Called She
Why is a Ship Called She?
Ah, sweet mystery of life! Why is a ship called she? That question is right up there with Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Why have I chosen this subject? Why? Because my hubbuddy, psychicdog.net, asked me to provide the answer to why a ship is always of the feminine persuasion when I wrote a review about the world’s largest cruise ship – the Oasis of the Seas.
So, I am taking the time away from my pursuit of the other incredibly important philosophical conundrums on my plate such as if you drop a piece of buttered toast, why does it always land with the buttered-side on the floor? Or, why does that $5.00 discount coupon you and I have been searching for always turn up the day after its expiration date?Back to – Why do we call a ship she? But first get ready for a musical digression. One of my first thoughts on the subject of giving female appellations to things ordinarily considered male took me back to the song by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.” Do you remember it? If you never heard of either Johnny Cash or “Sue,” you are in for a treat. Watch this video of the original version of Cash’s song sung live at San Quentin Penitentiary in 1969. Because the lyrics are so memorable, I have reprinted them at the end for your pleasure.
Johnny Cash singing "A Boy Named Sue"
So I’m thinking that if a boy were named Sue then why is it so unusual for a ship to be a she. My voluminous research has turned up a number of intriguing answers to this question. Now you can select your favorite.
Answer #1 – A ship is called "she" because . . .
There is always a great deal of bustle around her … There is usually a gang of men about … It takes a lot of paint to keep her good looking … She shows her topsides and hides her bottom … She can be all decked out … It takes an experienced man to handle her correctly … When coming into port, she always heads for the buoys … Without a man at the helm, she is absolutely un-controllable … And the main reason … it's not the initial expense that breaks you, it's the upkeep.
This explanation has been posted in the wardrooms of numerous U.S. ships.
Answer #2 – A ship is called "she" because . . .
A ship may represent a mother taking care of a human inside her womb. So when we board a ship or a vessel, we are all inside her and she takes care of her passengers until we are delivered safely to our destination.
The author of this answer may need therapy to deal with his psychological Oedipus complex - the unconscious antagonism of a son to his father, whom he sees as a rival for his mother's affection.
Answer #3 – A ship is called "she" because . . .
The exact reason why ships are called “she” in the English language is lost to history. While explanations abound, most appear to be of the folk variety, assumed or invented after the fact as a way to make sense of the phenomenon. Ships are an interesting example in English, as they are among the few inanimate objects that take a gendered pronoun, whereas most other objects are called “it.”
"History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools." – Ambrose Bierce
Countries are also called “she” as are automobiles, motorcycles and boats but the latter examples are probably an extension from ships.
“How do you like my new Exelero sports car; Isn’t she a beauty?”
Answer #4 – A ship is called "she" because . . .
Another plausible theory is that boats are called “she” because they are traditionally given female names, typically the name of an important woman in the life of the boat's owner, such as his mother or wife. It has also been surmised that all ships were once dedicated to goddesses, and later to important mortal women when belief in goddesses waned. Interestingly, although male captains and sailors historically attributed the spirit of a benevolent female figure to their ships, and often the prow sported the full figure of a topless female, actual women on board were considered very bad luck at sea.
Have you wondered about the definition of a ship, versus a boat? The captain of a cruise ship gave me this definition: “A ship is a vessel large enough to carry a boat. A boat is smaller and cannot carry a ship. However, if a ship is sinking, it looks for … a boat.”
Mayday" originates from the French "m'aidez" which means "help me".
Answer #5 – A ship is called “she” because . . .
There is evidence that English once had a more extensive system of grammatical gender, similar to that in languages such as German and French. 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”.
You may be interested to know that a ship being called a “she” is very much a western Europe / U.S. custom. In Russia and much of Arabic Asia, a ship is called “he”.
Whether the fact that ships are called she is a throwback to an ancient system of grammatical gender that has disappeared from English in all but a few instances, or an analogy to the reverence that sailors have for the women in their lives, the phenomenon is one of the most interesting anomalies in Modern English. Recently, advocates of gender-neutral or non-sexist language have proposed that ships no longer be called she, but rather it, like any other inanimate object.Time out for the very funny “crowded ship’s cabin” scene in the Groucho Marx film, “One Night at the Opera.” How many people did you count in the cabin?
Answer #6 – A ship is called “she” because . . .
It is possible that ships, boats, autos, etc., are known as "she" because everyone babies them so much, keeps them clean, neat and pretty, and maintains them in good shape. It may not be considered manly for a machine to be hand-wiped and waxed every week.
Unless, of course, you are the owner of a Corvette . . . or an Exelero!
Answer #7 – A ship is called “she” because . . .
Ships are referred to in the feminine because that's the gender for the word, "ship" or “navis” in Latin. So the pronoun is always "she".
Note: Although hurricanes (storms) still receive feminine names, every other storm is given a masculine name. Would you say they are now himacanes?
Answer #8 – A ship is called “she” because . . .
Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz put it more succinctly in an address to the Society of Sponsors of the United States Navy: "A ship is always referred to as 'she' because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder."
Answer #9 – A ship is called “she” because . . .
WikiAnswer: At the time of the ancient mariners even as far back as 500 BC, most were 'married to the sea' due to their love for the ocean. The ships were their livelihood, their home and their love. As a compliment to the women they loved, they named their sailing vessels after them, telling them that it would remind them of the ones they left behind for the months and sometimes years they would be gone. This caught on. The 'she' was also given for things of great beauty found in the sea, e.g., “There she blows!" depicting the massive water spout seen by ancient whaling ships which almost all had female names. Even when ships stopped being given feminine names they were still referred to as 'she', but basically this analogy was due to a captain's love for his ship. "She’s a fine ship, Captain."
Not all Captains are perfect ... watch the guy fall off the stern of the tug.
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Answer #10 – A ship is called “she” because . . .
“Why We Call a Ship a She?” By Rear Admiral Francis D. Foley, U.S. Navy (Retired), Naval History, December 1998
“Ships are referred to as ‘she’ because men love them, but this encompasses far more than just that. Man-o'-war or merchantman, there can be a great deal of bustle about her as well as a gang of men on deck, particularly if she is slim-waisted, well-stacked, and has an inviting superstructure. It is not so much her initial cost as it is her upkeep that makes you wonder where you founder.
She is greatly admired when freshly painted and all decked out to emphasize her cardinal points. If an aircraft carrier, she will look in a mirror when about to be arrested, and will wave you off if she feels you are sinking too low or a little too high, day or night. She will not hangar around with duds, but will light you off and launch you into the wild blue yonder when you muster a full head of steam.
“Even a submarine reveals her topsides returning to port, heads straight for the buoys, knows her pier, and gets her breast-lines out promptly if she is single-screwed. On departure, no ship leaves port asleep, she always leaves a wake. She may not mind her helm or answer to the old man when the going gets rough, and can be expected to kick up her heels on a family squall.
“A ship costs a lot to dress, sometimes blows a bit of smoke, and requires periodic overhauls to extend her useful life. Some have a cute fantail, others are heavy in the stern, but all have double-bottoms which demand attention. When meeting head-on, sound a recognition signal; whistle. If she does not answer up, come about and start laying alongside, but watch to see if her ship is slowing . . . perhaps her slip is showing? Then proceed with caution until danger of collision is over and you can fathom how much latitude she will allow.
“If she does not remain on an even keel, let things ride, feel your way, and do not cross the line until you determine ‘weather’ the "do" point is right for a prolonged blast. Get the feel of the helm, stay on the right “tact”, keep her so, and she will pay off handsomely. If she is in the roaring forties, however, you may be in the dangerous semi-circle, so do not expect much "luff," especially under bare poles.
She may think you are not under command or control and shove off. If she edges aweigh, keep her steady as she goes, but do not sink into the doldrums. Just remember that ‘to furnish a ship requires much trouble, but to furnish a woman the cost is double!’
“To the women who now help us "man" our ships, my apologies for the foregoing. Only the opening phrase presents my true feelings. After all, a ship's bell(e) will always remain her most prized possession, and every good ship has a heart, just like yours. A trick at the wheel, like you, would have been welcome aboard when I was on "she" duty for 40 years. May God bless you all, sweetheart!”
Those are the ten answers I found to the question, “Why do we call a ship she?” Which answer do you like best?
My favorite ship quotes:
“We did not all come over on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat.” – Bernard Baruch
“When I lost my rifle, the Army charged me 85 dollars. That is why in the Navy, the Captain goes down with the ship.” – Dick Gregory
“If you want your ship to come in, you must build a dock.”
“If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.” – Jonathan Winters
“The man who has done nothing but wait for his ship to come in has already missed the boat.”
Copyright BJ Rakow 2010, 2012, 2015. All rights reserved.
Author, "Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So."
"A Boy Named Sue" lyrics
My daddy left home when I was three,
And he didn't leave much to ma and me.
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid,
But the meanest thing that he ever did,
Was before he left, he went and named me "Sue."
Well, he must o' thought that is quite a joke, And it got a lot of laughs from a' lots of folk,
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red,
And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."
Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,
I'd roam from town to town to hide my shame.
But I made a vow to the moon and stars,
That I'd search the honky-tonks and bars,
And kill that man who gave me that awful name.
Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July,
And I just hit town and my throat was dry,
I thought I'd stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon on a street of mud,
There at a table, dealing stud,
Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me "Sue."
Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad, From a worn-out picture that my mother'd had,
And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and gray and old,
And I looked at him and my blood ran cold.
And I said: "My name is 'Sue!' How do you do!
Now you’re gonna die!"
Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes,
And he went down, but to my surprise,
He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear.
But I busted a chair right across his teeth,
And we crashed through the wall and into the street,
Kicking and a' gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.
I tell ya, I've fought tougher men,
But I really can't remember when,
He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.
I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss,
He went for his gun and I pulled mine first,
He stood there lookin' at me and I saw him smile.
And he said: "Son, this world is rough, And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough,
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye.
I knew you'd have to get tough or die,
And it's the name that helped to make you strong."
He said: "Now you just fought one hell of a fight,
And I know you hate me, and you got the right,
To kill me now, and I wouldn't blame you if you do.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye,
Cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue.’”
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun,
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him . . .
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!