Q: I was wondering if the old custom of referring to a ship as a female derives from the use of gender in other languages for inanimate things. I haven’t found any support for this idea, but it does fit nicely.
A: As we’ve written on our blog, the personification of nonliving nouns (e.g., ships or nations) as “she” has fallen out of common usage. It’s now generally considered quaint or poetic.
In 2002, Lloyd’s List, the 276-year-old London-based shipping newspaper, officially dropped the gender personification and now refers to ships with the pronouns “it” and “its” instead of “she” and “her.”
We can’t say for certain why ships were traditionally referred to with feminine pronouns, but we’ll pass on some theories that we’ve come across.
Under its entry for “she,” the Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage this way: “Used (instead of it) of things to which female sex is conventionally attributed,” such as “a ship or boat.”
The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a medieval work, John Barbour’s The Bruce (1375), a history of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots.
In the quotation, which uses Middle English spellings, a “schip” (ship) is referred to as “scho” (she).
And since that time, some other things besides ships have been, as the OED says, “personified as feminine.”
These include “natural objects considered as feminine,” including “the moon, or the planets that are named after goddesses.”
Also included are “the soul, a city, the church, a country,” and even (though the usage is now obsolete) an army.
In addition, the pronoun “she” has been used—and still is in colloquial usage or dialect—to refer to “a carriage, a cannon or gun, a tool or utensil of any kind; occas. of other things.”
Why was “she” used in these cases?
The fact that nouns had grammatical gender in Old English probably doesn’t account for it. But other languages may have had some influence.
In two early OED citations, which come from English translations of French works, “she” is used in reference to a door (c. 1380) and to a room or chamber (c. 1475).
The words for “door” (porte) and “room” (chambre) are feminine in French, and the OED says “the grammatical gender of the Fr. words rendered may have influenced the translators.”
A couple of 15th- and 16th-century citations in which “she” is used in reference to the sun “may possibly be due to misprint,” the OED says.
Any survival of the Old English grammatical gender for the word “can hardly be supposed,” Oxford adds, but the 15th-century citation “may have been influenced by the fact that the sun is fem. in Flemish.”
This seems likely, since that 15th-century work was printed by William Caxton, whose assistant, Colard Mansion, was a Flemish printer and scribe.
But we’re still left scratching out heads and wondering why some people to this day use “she” for things that have no gender.
Perhaps the grammarian Otto Jespersen came closest to an explanation in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933).
Jespersen wrote that some inanimate things may be personified “to show a certain kind of sympathy with or affection for the thing, which is thereby, as it were, raised above the inanimate sphere.”
“In such cases,” he adds, “the speaker does not really attribute sex to the thing in question, and the choice of a sexual pronoun is occasioned only by the fact that there is no non-sexual pronoun available except the inert it.”
So sometimes we may feel that “it” is simply too lifeless and inadequate—or, as Jespersen says, “inert.”
That seems as good a reason as any for why people have wanted to give ships a feminine touch.
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