The Grammarphobia Blog

Port and Starboard

Q: I’m reading a Patrick O’Brian novel and I find myself wondering about the origin of the words “port” and “starboard.” I guess “port” must come from the side of a ship that faces the port, but what’s the etymology of “starboard”?

A: The term “starboard” refers to the right side of a ship when facing the bow or front. It’s a very old word (dating way back to the 9th century) for the side from which a ship is steered. (“Steor” was the old word for rudder or paddle; “bord” was the word for side.) Boats used by the early Germanic tribes were steered from a paddle on the right side of the boat. “Stern,” the term for the rear of a boat, comes from the same source.

The term for the left side of a ship used to be “larboard,” which came from the Middle English “ladde-borde” or loading side of a ship, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. In the 16th century, sailors began using the word “port” to refer to the loading (or port) side. In recent times, the word “port” has generally replaced “larboard” to avoid confusion with the similar-sounding “starboard,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.