The Grammarphobia Blog

Can one ship make a flotilla?

Q: The word “flotilla” has been in the news a lot lately since the Israeli raid last May on ships carrying aid to Gaza. I find this use of the term odd, since the story is primarily about an Israeli raid on one ship. Is “flotilla” being used correctly?

A: You’re  right that one ship does not a flotilla make. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “flotilla” as “a small fleet; a fleet of boats or small vessels.”

But most of the news stories we’ve read use the term correctly, saying Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of six ships, and killed nine people on one of the ships.

As for the word in question, it was adopted from the Spanish word flotilla, a diminutive of flota, or “fleet.” In fact, “flota” was adopted into English too, though we don’t see it much these days.

In English, the OED says, “flota” was used not only generically for a fleet of ships but also as a term for “the Spanish fleet which used to cross the Atlantic and bring back to Spain the products of America and the West Indies.”

The OED’s first English citation for “flotilla” is dated 1711, and the first for “flota” is from 1690.

If you suspect the English verb “float” is lurking in here somewhere, you’re right. But we didn’t get it from Spanish; like “fleet,” it came from old Germanic sources.

Interestingly, the English word “fleet,” meaning a group of ships, was fleot in Old English and originally meant a single ship or floating vessel.

It came from the Old English verb fleotan (to float), which is ultimately traceable to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as pleud (to flow).

By the 1200s, according to the OED, “fleet” had come to mean a group of ships or a naval force.

Check out our books about the English language