Why is a ship referred to with “she” in English? In school, we are taught to use “it” to refer to things, while “he” and “she” are used for male and female beings. However, English has also used “she” when referring to ships and boats, and even cars. The ship as “she” has been a linguistic habit leftover from tradition. It was a reflection of the world that saw women as a mystery, like in the case of Mother Earth and Mother Nature.
The ship as a feminine noun was first observed when shipping made its emergence to the world. From the early 18th century, it was normal only for men to be on board ships. The traditional sexist prose to justify this is: “It takes an experienced man to handle her correctly, and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable.”
Technically, the use of “he” or “she” is when the subject of the sentence relates to people, while “it” is used when the subject relates to animals and inanimate things. However, when the relationship with the subject is personal, it is common to use “he” or “she.” For animals, the pronoun depends on their gender. In this regard, sailors, who have been traditionally men in a male-dominated industry have established referring to their ships and boats as “she.”
If you want to know the different reasons why ships and boats are referred to in the feminine, check it out here.
The Language Shift
However, in view of the global discussion on gender equality over the last century until today, we can understand that these explanations are made up of at least a superstition. Even if it’s an accepted explanation from a linguistic and traditional perspective, we cannot overlook the fact that ships and boats are not uncontrollable anymore.
The “ship as a she” tradition has been in a steady decline, with many shipping sites and registries calling their ships “it” for years. Cambridge dictionary also uses “it” to refer to countries, machines, and vehicles. Though some traditional styles prefer to use “she,” this is now considered inappropriate by many people.
The Scottish Maritime Museum has challenged the appropriateness of referring to ships as “she” in 2019 to adopt gender-neutral signage for its vessels. This move has provoked debate over when (if ever) it’s acceptable to use a feminine pronoun for inanimate things.
And it wasn’t just ships. Cars are often personified as a female “thing,” as many male car owners enjoy “taking her for a spin.” A logistics and haulage company Eddie Stobart gives their trucks female names.
Planets, countries, weather disturbances like storms, and hurricanes are given a feminine gender. Think of Motherland, Mother Nature, and Mother Earth – these names are given to symbolize that these entities are life-giving and life-sustaining. Back then, hurricanes only bore female names until violent hurricanes happened, and campaigners forced meteorologists to incorporate male names in the 1970s.
According to Ella Tennant from the Keele University’s Language Centre, using “she” to refer to ships and other inanimate things is an example of how language shapes how we see the world. She says there is power in labeling, and once a label is attached to something, we can have our own preconceptions and assumptions of what it is when we see that object. From a feminist language perspective, labeling things as female is slightly derogatory, patronizing, and perpetuating the traditional patriarchal view.
Some people argue that it’s merely an expression of affection by sailors who view their vessels as a maternal protector. It includes retired naval chief admiral from the British Royal Navy, Lord Allan West, who denounced the move as an insult to a generation of sailors who viewed their ships as a mother. This tradition lies in the theory and idea that goddesses and mother figures play a protective role for sailors at sea. Britain’s Royal Navy issued a statement that the Navy had a long tradition of referring to its ships as “she,” and they will continue to do so.
The director of the Scottish Maritime Museum, David Mann, said the decision to drop “she” for “it” to refer to vessels was initiated after two signs were vandalized. According to Mann, there’s a wide-ranging debate around gender and ships that puts tradition and the modern world with tradition, but he thinks it’s time to move with the times.
The 285-year-old daily maritime news journal, Lloyds List, has already abandoned “she” for “it” more than 20 years ago. Editor Richard Meade said the decision was made to bring the paper in line with other reputable international business titles, and they think that referring to ships as “she” seemed anachronistic.
Traditionally, ships and boats have a personality, and it’s fitting to call it a “she.” It’s beautifully constructed, and they look after sailors. In a sense, they nurture the passenger. However, Richard Meade has a point – you can attach a certain amount of romanticism in the days of wooden ships or old steam liners, but modern-day ships are too big and carries thousands of steel boxes on the board. The rusting hulk in a ship’s body doesn’t look feminine or even masculine at all.