You may have noticed that ships are commonly referred to a ‘she’ rather than ‘it’, despite the fact that it is a ‘thing’ and not a living being. So, how the gender of the ship is decided? Why most commonly ships are referred to as ‘she’?
The ship as a feminine noun was firstly seen when shipping made its emergence to the world, which means from the early 18th century, when it was more than normal only for men to be onboard ships.
There are plenty of jokes about why ships are commonly referred to as feminine, like “Ships are referred to as ‘she’ because men love them” or “like a woman, a ship is unpredictable” and many more. But today we’re going to try and find the real reason behind it.
English language is very complex. It has evolved over centuries taking influence from many other different languages. A lot of it’s come from Latin. The Latin word for ship, “Navis” is 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. We take a look at the French word ‘Bateau’, far more similar to the term ‘boat’ is actually assigned to masculine gender.
Another belief is that mostly all sailors in ancient times were men, and they named their ships after the people they loved. At the ship naming ceremony, such a name was chosen that it reminded the owner of someone he loved and cared for and this name was combined and associated with a mother’s protection, thus bestowing a feminine gender.
Ships being referred to as ‘she’ has been reinforced over time, with phrases such as ‘mothership’ referring to a large vessel that launches other small boats and ‘sistership’ referring to the ships of same class.
On the other hand, historically, not all nations referred to ships as ‘she’. The Russians called their ships ‘he’ and so does Germans while the Chinese sailors preferred gender-neutral terms like ‘it’, while referring to a ship or boat.
However, in the present time, this tradition is slowly fading out as some shipping registries and museums have already eliminated all personification of ships and are referring to the ships as ‘it’ instead. In fact, Lloyd’s List, which began reporting shipping news since 1734, has referred to all vessels as “it” since 2002, and many news sources have adopted this new convention. However, many sailors still prefers to call their ships as ‘she’.
Here is a very interesting video on this subject, have a look and decide for yourself whether you want to call a ship as ‘she’, ‘he’ or ‘it’: