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Why is a Ship Called She

Oasis of the Seas is a lady!

Oasis of the Seas is a lady!

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.   

USS Eagle - Coast Guard Training Ship

USS Eagle - Coast Guard Training Ship

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.

Clipper ship

Clipper ship

Ship Books

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?”

Ancient Greek ship

Ancient Greek ship

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”.

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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?

Pirate ship

Pirate ship

Columbus' ship - Santa Maria

Columbus' ship - Santa Maria

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!

Comments for Why is a Ship Called She?

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on March 19, 2015:

Your answer makes sense, Taranwanderer. Thanks for the visit and your kind comments.

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on February 16, 2013:

I knew you would, Chris. Groucho and that particular scene have long been among my favorites. Thanks for giving me an excuse to come back and view it again. :)

carolina muscle from Charlotte, North Carolina on February 14, 2013:

great post!! I especially liked that Marx Brothers cabin scene! :-)

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on December 31, 2012:

And 'toutes mes salutations les plus distinguées' to you, too, Jacko. Since you appear to be enamored of large cruise ships (at least in your dreams), you may want to read my hub, "World's Largest Cruise Ship Oasis of the Seas Review."

The Oasis' twin sister ship, the Allure, is also sailing now. Have a Happy New Year.

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on December 31, 2012:

Hi, Jacko, so nice to meet you. What a coincidence that you dreamed about a yacht and became inspired to learn why we call a ship a she. I had long pondered that question myself which is why I did the research and wrote this epic explanation.

Thank you for your sublime comments and sublime they are, whether in English or French. I welcome them in any language. You do not have to apologize for coming late to the party. As long as you found it. So 'chapeau et merci' to you, my friend.

Jacko on December 29, 2012:

Oh by the way, dreams can sometimes be precise - at least, mine are. So not just a boat but a yacht! Eerie, I know! :) And I also just noticed that I'm actually two years late to the party! Better late than never, they say. Whom? I don't know. Well, probably those who still want to have a good conscience even when they've screwed up! Anyway, toutes mes salutations les plus distinguées! Sorry for my French!

Jacko on December 29, 2012:

I dreamed of a boat last night - a yacht to be precise. Nothing rated PG-S, I can assure you! I woke up and wondered, "why a boat is called a 'she'?" The Internet, the Saviour, is here of course to put my eerie and curious mind to rest! I browsed it and came across your fabulous answer. What an absorbing read! You took me on a great adventure at sea onboard a royal cruise ship - a trip full of knowledge peppered with bucketloads of giggles. The videos were a bonus. Back on land, I said to myself, "I shall never forget HER, that ship that 'vesseled' me on such a subjugating voyage. SHE was majestic. So is your writing. To gems like that, we say in French - as English is not my mother tongue - 'chapeau et merci'. So to the gem you've produced on this page, I say 'chapeau et merci' to you. I know I'm nearly a year late to the party but I genuinely enjoyed it! Au revoir and à bientôt maybe.

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on November 11, 2012:

Hi, humorsense. You are late to the party. Chinthaka - about 27 comments above - already beat you to the punch...line. Ahah.

humorsense on November 11, 2012:

why is a vessel called she ?

my answer : the bottom always wet ! ahah

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on July 19, 2012:

Nice to meet you, just a cadet. Yes, you have my permission to present this article to your class. Just be sure if you print it out that you include the copyright information at the bottom of the article. Would be delighted to know your class' reaction.

just a cadet on July 14, 2012:

well sorry if i have read this a little late. i was looking for an article about "why is a vessel called she" and yours proved a real gem...ive used some reasons in our class subject Maritime English and the slight humor gave us a laugh....now would it be okay if i use your article and present it to our class? waiting for your permission.

kareem on April 03, 2012:

thanks sure i will

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on March 29, 2012:

kareem - Are you using your email address where it says username? Try that to see if it will work.

kareem on March 28, 2012:

author i tried to follow and i did the steps but when i write my username it says try other one and i do but it keeps saying another one

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on March 18, 2012:

Hi, kareem. I write several hubs or stories each month. If you want to get emails notifying you, click on 'Follow' on my profile page. Thanks for your interest.

kareem on March 18, 2012:

did you write any storie

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on March 15, 2012:

Thank you for the info, kareem, I will check out the tecktonik video. My real name, since you asked, is bj - the dr is my title.

kareem on March 14, 2012:

sure there is on youtube write how to danse tecktonik

ah and author i want to know ur reallname if u dont mind ur thing helped me alot

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on March 12, 2012:

Question for you, kareem, from all us cool guys. Not sure about 'tecktonick.' Is there a video available to teach that dance? Just askin'.

kareem on March 12, 2012:

hey can any one here dance tecktonick

kareem on March 12, 2012:

you know i feel that all of u are cool

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on March 11, 2012:

Thank you for enjoying our very 'nice' conversation, kareem, join in any time. Gals are welcome, too.

kareem on March 11, 2012:

its a very nice conversation Guys

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on January 18, 2012:

You are welcome, Nin. And give the French guy my regards.

Nin on January 17, 2012:

There is also french guy who wants to know, thanks for aswaring my question

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on January 16, 2012:

Thank you, phil, for stopping by and liking the answers to the question I posed. Yes, a ship does need to be taken care of - just like a lady. You do sound like a gentleman, sir.

phil.----jbb on January 13, 2012:

.. like the answers . i agree, a ship must be treated as a lady or called a she ..... needs to be taken care off.

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on September 16, 2011:

Your idea was a stroke of genius, Rod, and another very good rationale for calling a ship a she - especially during the time when Britain ruled the waves and the monarch was of the feminine persuasion. Thanks for adding your inspiration.

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on September 16, 2011:

Nice to meet you, carcro. You are so right. Almost any of the scenarios I mentioned above could apply. Thank you for the up and awesome. Come back any old time.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on September 15, 2011:

Another idea has crossed my mind. During the two greatest periods of the British navy a woman happened to be on the thrown. I am thinking of Elizabeth the First and also Queen Victoria. I would say that a British ship, whether a warship or a ship for commerce, would represent the British people because of the expense in building her and also representing the ruler of Britain because she is symbolic of Britain. Hence the ship is a SHE. There have been a few ships named after female British monarchs.

Paul Cronin from Winnipeg on September 15, 2011:

What an interesting hub, just about any of the reasons could be the real one, but in fact they all seem to apply. Great article! Voted Up and Awesome!

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on September 13, 2011:

I am delighted to call you a 'romantic,' Rod. There are way too few in our world today. Thanks for the return visit.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on September 13, 2011:

I go along with Tom. I still think that lonely sailors missing female company has a lot to do with the ship being a she. Call it the romantic in me if you like.

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on September 13, 2011:

Inventive reasoning, Chinthaka, but totally and entirely specious.

drbj and sherry (author) from south Florida on September 13, 2011:

Interesting comment, Tom, but I have always believed that the behavior you describe is not confined to only one sex. Would you agree?

Chinthaka on September 13, 2011:

Ship is called "She" because the bottom is always wet.

Tom Morris on September 06, 2011:

She behaves like a woman:If you look after her, she will take care of you. If not, she will ditch you by www.customtermpaper.org.