English grammar says we use ‘it’ to refer to things, while ‘he’ and ‘she’ are personal pronouns and should only be used for people. However, language has it to use ‘she’ when we refer to ships and boats, something that has its roots in the very old times. “Ships are referred to as ‘she’ because men love them” or “like a woman, a ship is unpredictable”, tradition used to say. But seriously, what is lagging behind this language idiom?
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. A traditional prose existing till today used a sexist approach to justify this:
“It takes an experienced man to handle her correctly and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable,”
“Love her, take good care of her, and she shall take good care of you,”
But, in view of the global discussion on gender equality over the last century, we can understand that these explanations constitute at least a superstition and this encompasses far more than just that. Even if we accepted this explanation from a linguistic point of view, we cannot overlook the fact that ships are not uncontrollable anymore!
As such, we attempted to provide a series of possible alternative justifications:
- Technically, the idea is that we use ‘he’ or ‘she’ when the subject of the sentence relates to people and ‘it’ when the subject relates to animals or things. However, when the relationship with the subject is personal, it is extremely common to use ‘he’ or ‘she’ for animals, depending on their gender, or even inanimate objects. In this regard, sailors, who have been traditionally men in this male-dominated industry over the years, may have established referring to their vessels as ‘she’.
2. Another explanation possibly lies in the traditional ties to religion and the idea of goddesses and mother figures playing a protective role in looking after a ship and crew. In this respect, we often see ships named after feminine names. Christopher Columbus’ ship, one of the most famous ships in history which sailed the Atlantic, was called “La Santa Maria”, named after the Virgin Mary.
3. If we want to take a look strictly linguistically, this lingual peculiarity can be possibly traced to the fact that the gender of the Latin word for “ship” — Navis — is feminine.
However, the most possible scenario explaining this phenomenon is a combination of the above: The ‘ship as she’ is a linguistic habit as a leftover from tradition, a reflection of a world which saw women as a mystery of the world, like Mother Earth and Mother Nature, someone whose purpose and utility is to carry life on the one hand, but ‘needs a man to handle her’ on the other.
Needless to say, the ‘ship as a she’ phenomenon has been in steady decline, with many shipping registries and journalistic sites calling ships ‘it’ for years now.
Namely, Cambridge dictionary also says we usually use ‘it’ to refer to countries, vehicles and machines, and that although some traditional styles have it using ‘she’, “this is now considered inappropriate by many people”.
In any case, personifying an object either in the male or the female form, both linguistically and symbolically, maybe now something of an anachronism, taking into consideration all the social fights for eliminating the tendency of self-defining by gender.