Why Do We Refer to Ships as Female?
You may or may not have noticed that ships are commonly referred to as “she” rather than “it”. There are plenty of jokes about why ships are referred to as feminine but let us try and find the real reason why.
The English language is horrifically complex; it has evolved over centuries taking influence from many other different languages. A lot of words come from Latin where the word for “ship” is “navis”. Interestingly, an old constellation in the southern sky was the agronavis , or the ship argo. Nowadays, that is divided up into three constellations – Carina, Puppis and a Vela.
Anyway, back to language. Latin assigns a gender to a lot of words with “navis” being designated feminine. Now, you would think that this could lead to a natural association with ships being feminine but Latin by no means is the only influence on the English language. If we take a look at the French name “bateau”, arguably far more similar to “boat” than “navis” is to “ship”, that is actually a sign of masculine gender. Ships like Ile de France were quite confusing as their name comes from the region which is feminine but the vessel itself carries a masculine gender.
Similar, in Spanish Columbus’s ship La Santa Maria was a masculine gendered vessel carrying a feminine gendered name. It seems that even in the roman languages the name given to a ship has no relation to the gender of the noun itself. Indeed, if you look at modern ships names, there is certainly no inference that the ship itself is gendered.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is clearly named after a female, yet the next ship in the class is HMS Prince of Wales clearly named after a male. However, at the christening ceremony Her Majesty the Queen herself referred to the ship as female – “I name the ship Queen Elizabeth. May God bless her and all who sail in her”. The same thing happened at the christening ceremony of the HMS Prince of Wales - the Duchess of Cornwall consistently referred to the ship as “she”.
The christening ceremony is the tradition when ships are launched. In Britain, the ship is blessed, given its official name and a bottle of champagne is broken against the hull. Interestingly, HMS Queen Elizabeth I has a bottle of whiskey broken instead to honor her Scottish heritage. The ceremony itself has been around for centuries and was always done for religious and superstitious reasons. In days gone by sailors believed they needed all they luck they could get. They wanted to appease the Gods of the sea to try and ensure they got home safely. Of course, now modern technology, sophisticated weather forecasting and proper passage planning has increased the safety of ships enormously.
You could argue that the christening ceremony is no longer needed to give that psychological boost that that it once did. We do continue it though, because it is a tradition. Traditions keep us in touch with the past and arguably without them we would live in quite a plain and clinical world. So, back to the main question – why ships are referred to as “she” – it could come from the Latin heritage of the word itself, but more likely it has come from the same place as the naming ceremony – tradition.
Most ancient sailors were men and they named the ships after the people they loved. At the naming ceremony, the ships were probably bestowed a gender based on that name. Combining a name that they love with the mother’s protection that it was hoped the ship would provide led to the feminine association we have today. We believe it was the act of christening that has led to ships being referred to as “she”. It has been reinforced over time with phrases such as mothership referring to a large vessel that launches others, and sistership referring to ships of same class. Of course, now the debate is open as to whether this should all change. Some shipping registries and museums already have eliminated all personifications of ships and changed to “it” instead.
The "Read Later" function allows you to add material to this block with just one click. Just click on the icon and read the articles that interest you at any convenient time.