You’ve probably heard sailors and enthusiasts use female pronouns when referring to their ships, boats, and watercraft. We even see this in popular movies and TV shows!
So, why are ships called she? There isn’t just one singular answer for this. The reasons are rooted in history, religion, superstitions, and linguistics!
The story behind calling ships using female pronouns has a deep and often controversial history. In this article, we’re looking into all of these reasons.
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Why Are Ships Called She?
It’s commonly accepted that ships are called she due to the evolution of language where the Latin term for ship, “Navis,” is feminine. Another reason ships take a feminine pronoun is that they are often named after women and are dedicated to goddesses who protect the vessel.
History of Ships Feminine Pronoun
During the early 18th century, almost all ships exclusively had male crew members. Women weren’t allowed onboard a vessel, especially once it had begun sailing.
In the early days of shipping and maritime exploration, men held a sexist superstition that a woman onboard brought bad luck to a ship. The crew believed that the presence of a woman on a boat angered the water gods.
Despite their superstitions, early seafarers held strong respect for the motherly protection they were provided and extended that gratitude towards the ship that protected them from the sea. Many boats from the 16th to 20th century included a female figurehead on the bow, which sailors believed protected the ship and its crew.
But not all ships are referred to as “she.”
Historically, ships such as German battleships Bismarck and Admiral Scheer have been referred to as ‘he’ or ‘him.’ Captain Ernst Lindemann used masculine pronouns for his battleships as he thought the vessels were too powerful to be referred to as female.
Despite Captain Ernst Lindemann’s use of the masculine pronoun for his battleships, many historians refer to Bismark and Admiral Scheer as “she.”
Latin Origins of the Word “Ship”
Latin has a lot of gendered words, contrary to other languages like English. The Latin word for ship is “Navis”—a feminine noun.
Because one of the earliest languages referred to a ship as something feminine, this is a possible reason why ships were also referred to as females. The Latin origin of the word ship and its feminine gender is an often cited reason ships are called she.
Inspired by Female Godly Figures
Old traditions and religions believe in the existence of female figures and deities, such as water goddesses, who were thought to protect the crew from harm. As a sign of respect, sailors also referred to their ships as females.
It’s commonly believed that ships are called she because of the protective role the ship provides to sailors.
The ship keeps the crew safe from the dangers of the sea, just like how the female godly figures protected them.
Looking at historical ships, you’ll often see a figurehead on the front of the vessel. The figurehead was often a woman who sailors believed protected the ship and those onboard.
Personal Relationship With Inanimate Objects
When humans form personal bonds, we often refer to them with gendered pronouns. It’s most commonly done when referring to living creatures like pets.
However, it’s common for people to use the terms “he” and “she” for inanimate objects with which they form a strong, personal bond.
Sailors and crew spend months at sea, forming a strong bond with the ship that provides them safety and protection from the sea. Sailors call their ships “she,” demonstrating a strong and personal bond with their ships.
Giving objects gendered pronouns also personifies them. The personification of ships breathes life into an otherwise lifeless object.
Are Cruise Ships Still Called She Today?
Ships are often referred to using feminine pronouns.
When a new cruise ship is christened, you’ll often hear the phrase “God bless her and all who sail on her” during the naming ceremony.
Cruise ships are often assigned a godmother who presides over the naming ceremony. The position is largely ceremonial but has long historical roots. The godmother’s role is to bless the ship and provide good luck and protection to the vessel and those who sail on her.
Controversy Surrounding Gendered Pronouns for Ships
While cruise ships are often referred to using female pronouns, some museums, and organizations use gender-neutral language for ships.
Lloyd’s Register Group Limited, a maritime classification society, began referring to ships as ‘it’ instead of ‘she’ in 2002. However, the Royal Navy continues to refer to ships as ‘she.’
There’s a noticeable decline in referring to ships as “she.”
Many people consider it inappropriate to give a gender to inanimate objects because of the connotations that follow the pronouns.
Referring to an inanimate object by a specifically gendered pronoun feeds into the notion that the object’s characteristics are representative of the gender.
While many in the industry move towards genderless pronouns for ships, the cruise industry is deeply rooted in maritime tradition. Cruise ships will likely be referred to as “she” well into the future.
Why are ships called she? The history behind this question runs deep, and there isn’t a singular answer!
The reasons behind calling ships a ‘she’ form quite a long list: religions, old traditions, nautical beliefs, superstitions, linguistics, and personal relationships.
While some explanations have controversial and sexist roots, others seem logical reasons for seafarers at the time.
Many new cruise ships are referred to as “she” during the naming ceremony. And the tradition doesn’t appear to be going away soon.
But other vessels in the shipbuilding industry are more commonly referred to as ‘it’ despite their deep roots in history. Museums, organizations, and individuals are starting to remove the sexist notions of maritime terms.