The Grammarphobia Blog

The shipping news

Q: I had an interesting question in my ESL conversation group this week. What is the meaning of “ship” in words like “friendship,” “relationship,” etc.? It really stumped me. Any suggestions? (The group is made up of students from China, Iran, Peru, Mexico, Kosovo, Japan, and Turkey.)

A: You ask a very interesting question.

In Old English, the suffix “ship” – then spelled sciepe, skiepe, scipe, or scype – was added to adjectives, past participles, and nouns to create nouns that meant a state or condition (that’s how, for example, “ship” got added to “friend”).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, many old Germanic languages used this device to make compound words, and it had the meaning of “creation, creature, constitution, condition.”

In Anglo-Saxon times, “ship” was a very common suffix, though many of the old “ship” words have since disappeared or been replaced with competing words ending in another very old suffix: “ness.”

For example, “goodship” (godscipe) and “goodness” (godnes) competed for centuries until “goodness” won the popularity contest. In one familiar case, we kept both forms – “hardship” and “hardness” – though their meanings diverged.

The compounds that have mostly disappeared were ones that added “ship” to adjectives and past participles. The OED says: “Such compounds were numerous in Old English, and many survived (or were re-coined) in Middle English, but few have a history extending beyond the 15th century.”

Examples of such Old English words that didn’t make the cut are druncenscipe (roughly meaning drunkenship), glædscipe (gladship), dolscipe (foolishship or errorship), and prútscipe (prideship).

The only survivals of this kind are our modern words “hardship” and “worship” (formed from an old adjective that meant worthy).

The surviving “ship” words that are common today are mostly formed from nouns, and they’re almost countless: “partnership”, “fellowship,” “craftsmanship,” “lordship,” “professorship,” “courtship,” “township,” and so on.

By the way, the suffix “ship” doesn’t seem to be related to the noun “ship.” The Old English word for the seagoing vessel, scip, is related to similar Germanic words: skip (Old Frisian), skip (Old Norse), scheep (Old High German), and so on. The OED says “the ultimate etymology is uncertain.”

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