Niagara Gazette


June 8, 2014

GLYNN: Why's that ship always a 'she'?

Niagara Gazette — Mike Fox of Youngstown, a co-owner of the fledgling Niagara Adventure Jet Boat, quickly finished his coffee at the Village Diner and headed down to the waterfront for another busy day at the marina. 

“I didn’t even get a chance to ask him that question,” a nitpicking customer snapped. The customer was sure that Fox would have known the answer: “Why is every ship called ‘she’? Who decided on that gender?

You’ll hear wide-ranging explanations but one that has some merit is from Dr. John Jackson, a former professor at Brock University, St. Catharines, who quotes a reliable source in his book, The Welland Canals. A Comprehensive Guide. “The most likely explanation (to attribute that gender)  is the traditional belief of sailors that a ship is very close to a living entity, endowed with a spirit and a distinct personality, demanding respect and, given proper consideration, most dependable.” All of that translates, in case you missed the point, to the beauty and mystique of a woman.”

Years ago, as a high school student intrigued by the origin of words, I was a faithful listener to the popular Sunday night radio program moderated by Dr. Bergen Evans, a Northwestern University professor. He argued that “she” was a creation of sailors spending months at sea without any sign of a woman. To keep fresh in mind the one he left behind, an “old salt” would carve the image of a female on the bowsprit. Well, that’s one explanation.

Among other phrases and expressions you might have wondered about, at one time or another.

• Hard up: It’s not just short of money. Originally, it was a nautical phrase, describing how a vessel forced by the stress of weather was turned away from the wind and the helm was put hard up to windward to alter the course.

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