Grammar-wise, “she” is a pronoun used to refer to a woman or a female. But how come inanimate objects are referred to as a “she,” like boats and ships? Old sailors used to answer this question with a sexist joke: “Like a woman, a ship is unpredictable.” But there are a lot of different theories why, so let’s break them down:
1. Men love them
This is one obvious reason. It’s more common that boats are used by men, so they refer to their treasured boat as a woman they love. Did you notice that men do this with cars, too? Sometimes they refer to the vehicle or vessel as their “girlfriend” or “baby.”
2. Their male owners name them after the important women in their lives
Men show affection to women close to their hearts by naming their boy toys after them. Typically, they name it after a mother, wife, daughter, lover, sister or a beloved grandmother who passed away.
3. Sailors of the past dedicated ships to goddesses and mother figures who play a protective role for the ship
Traditionally, ships are given female names because it has been surmised that in ancient history ships were once dedicated to goddesses. When belief in goddesses waned, ships were named after important mortal women. Have you ever wondered how many ships in the world were named “Queen Elizabeth?” Some name their boat after great women who, they believe, guide their voyage. Christopher Columbus famously crossed the Atlantic in a ship named after the Virgin Mary, the La Santa Maria.
Historically, sailors and captains were primarily males and the bowsprit of a sailing ship was often decorated by images of women, attributed to the spirit of a benevolent female. It also played an important role in helping people who couldn’t read identify a ship. It has been a common practice since then, until people adopted other female names, like the members of the ship owner’s family.
4. Boats are likened to mothers
Females give a sense of nurturing and protection because of their motherly instincts. A ship is likened to a mother taking care of a baby inside her womb. When people are aboard a ship, they are all inside her. She takes care of them until they are delivered safely to their destination, thus making them attribute a “she” to the vessel.
5. It comes from the origins of language
According to studies, the English language had a more extensive system of grammatical gender, similar to other languages such as French and German. In most Indo-European languages, there are “male,” “female” and “neutral” words. Old English texts also had more evidence of grammatical gender, like referring to a shield as “she.” In Latin, “ship” means “navis,” which is a feminine word.
So, making boats female and calling them “she” is an ancient custom of giving genders to inanimate objects. However, this practice is very much Western because in Russia and most places in the Middle East, a ship is called “he.”
6. Boats are high-maintenance
Good sailors know that their boats need tender loving care. It is possible that ships and boats, as well as cars, are known as “she” because their owners take care of them, keeping them well maintained, clean and pretty. Chester Nimitz, a fleet admiral of the US Navy in World War II, famously said, “A ship is always referred to as ‘she’ because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder.”
7. These vessels are basically comparable to women
An unknown author wrote this piece about ships, which are posted in many wardrooms of vessels in the US.
A ship is called a she because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; she has a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hiders her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.
In today’s modern world there will likely be a move away from calling ships “she” as our language evolves. But there is also no doubt that many a male ship owner will still fondly think of their boat as a “she”.