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An Alphabet of Feminism #19: S is for Ship

2011 February 21


Q: Why are ships refered to in the female gender?

A: – The only beautiful lines to match a ship would be that of a beautiful woman.
– When we crusty mariners go to sea we want a way to honor our loved ones left on shore.
– Unless the grew is different they name them after girls. Besides they all have issues & a mind of there own. And cost a fortune to keep going.
– Because they are always wet at the bottom!
– Because the are grace full and slander also very majestic. Just like my woman.
– Because we love our boats like our women.
– Because they need handling very very carefully!

Yahoo Answers

OK, you got me. My finely-honed research techniques generally begin with asking Google. Believe it or not, this timeless question: ‘why is a ship called “she”?’ seems to have eluded people for quite a while – along with this Yahoo Answers page, I also consulted this tea-towel in a Greenwich gift-shop and asked my old friend, the dictionary. Nary a satisfactory (read: academic) answer. But let this not stop us – onwards!

Saucy Nancy, the wooden figurehead from Worzel Gummidge and Saucy Nancy, takes a bath.

Saucy Nancy takes a bath - illustration by John Harwood

We know ship is probably Old English (scip) but its ultimate etymology is officially ‘uncertain’. The Online Etymology Dictionary (whence I have had frequent recourse since my alma mater saw fit to strip me of my free OED online access) considers it to be proto-Germanic (skipen), ultimately from ‘skei‘ = ‘to cut, split’ – now, now, let’s not get bawdy in our quest for gendering answers, it’s easily explained as ‘a tree cut out’: Literal, man. This gives us its first meaning, as ‘a large sea-going vessel’, as opposed to a smaller boat. In modern times, this means specifically ‘a vessel having a bowsprit and three masts, each of which consists of a lower top and topgallant mast’.

These may not be specifically gendered, but by the 1550s people were widely referring to an unsailed ship as a maiden and its initial outing as a maiden voyage (an adjectival form of the proto-Germanic magadinom = ‘young womanhood; sexually inexperienced female’). Of course, this was a trend appropriated in the sky-crazy 1960s to apply to aircraft and other heavy vehicles, and it is still widely used today – with many of its superstitions intact (and possibly justified… don’t know if anyone’s heard of RMS Titanic at all?) The word also has figurative uses and associations: ‘ship of the desert‘, meaning ‘a camel’; and a ghostly ‘Guinea ship‘, which is a sailor’s term for a floating medusa.

I always say it’s the uniform Shirley’s fallin’ for…

Ah, sailors. Perhaps I’m generalizing here, but they have not been widely celebrated for their feminist views. Their superstitions on the other hand – well, those are another matter. Along with Fear Of Maiden Voyages, these also include the belief that having a woman on board was unlucky (the sea would get Angry and Wreak Revenge) and that if a bare-footed female crossed your path on your way to sea you should not get on board (let the lads scoff, you weren’t planning on dying anytime soon). Daughters of Eve were to be kept away from maiden ships in particular at all costs: barren women were simply dying to jump over the keel in the name of fertility, with nary a care for the lives of the carpenters and captain they were endangering in the process.

A naked figurehead on front of a ship wearing a spotted pirate headscarf

It's for warding off danger, sir, honest... Image via Flickr user r3v || cls

In fact, the closest a woman should ever come to a ship in Days of Yore was in the form of a bare-breasted apparition (get your tits out, love): such visions would calm gales and rough seas – although this one does rather sound like it was made up by a singularly hopeful sailor down the club of a saturday night – and they possibly explain why so many figureheads seem to have mislaid their t-shirts. What’s that you say? Figureheads? These are carved decorations sitting astride the prow, most common on ships between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (eventually abandoned because they had grown to such a size that they impeded the vessel’s smooth progress). When they were not effigies of naked women, they generally had something to do with the name of the vessel in question, as with London’s replica of the Golden Hind (or indeed the Golden Behind, led by Captain Abdul and his pirate crew in another of my childhood favourites). Their function, then, could be to identify the ship, ward off supernatural danger or simply to look pretty, in a kind of early version of the pin-up page three – in most cases, they probably fulfilled a mixture of these services.

Their relationships with the sailors manning the vessel could vary: they were almost certainly endowed with some kind of spiritual protective power – we must not forget how perilous a sea voyage remained even into the twentieth century – but they were presumably also viewed with all the Manly Affection evidenced in respondents to Yahoo Answers. After all, there’s a reason a sailor has a girl in every port, and a comparative pendant might be that iconic pin-up image of Betty Grable marketed at American GIs in 1943 (or indeed the retro-appeal of Sexy Sailor underwear). The much-underrated XTC exploited this in their eighties-tastic music video for All You Pretty Girls (1984) (which contains the immortal line ‘in my dreams we are rocking in a similar motion’).

…He won’t look so la-di-dah in a suit of dungarees.

But an enjoyable analogue to this tradition is the tobacco-chewing, slang-spouting, landlubber-hating figurehead Saucy Nancy, friend to Worzel Gummidge in Barbara Euphan Todd’s Worzel Gummidge and Saucy Nancy (1947). She introduces herself to John and Susan saying ‘I’m half a lady because I ain’t got no lower half’ (Gummidge considers her a ‘sea-scarecrow’). True to her epithet (used here in saucy‘s first sense, ‘impertinent, rude’), she is also given to spouting vaguely inappropriate sea-shanties at inconvenient times, the most telling of which suggests a lot about the relationship between sailor and figurehead:

Nancy, Nancy, tickle me fancy,
Here we lift again –
Furling jib to a lifting sea
All together, and time by me
Or the girl in the stern my bride to be.

All this has been diversionary (and, mayhap diverting), but where did the ship go? Well, aside from the fact that the figurehead was in many cases working as a synecdoche for the ship itself, it also serves as an illustration of the relationship between the sailor crew and the vessel’s ‘human’ side (which is almost always gendered female).

Sail on, oh Ship of State

However, as of 1675, ship had a further meaning, in figurative ‘application to the state’, an idea that goes back to Plato and Horace as a model of good government. Plato reckoned that a ship, being a complicated technical beast, required a competent ‘philosopher king’ at the helm, to avoid in-fighting and silliness among the crew (which would, inevitably, end in naval disaster). The idea was picked up by Henry Longfellow (1807-1882), but appears elsewhere as a figurative commonplace.

It takes on a literal incarnation in modern times through flagship ocean liners, whose British incarnations are frequently feminized (Queen Mary 1 & 2, Queen Elizabeth 1 & 2). Here it is useful to compare the lexical-historical conception of queens and nannies – as the devoted will remember, the latter acquired a specifically feminine connotation with the fussy behaviour of a state.

So why is a ship gendered female? Well, aside from the sea-faring gender-assumptions (mermaids, bare-breasted apparitions, and perhaps even the traditional association of women and moisture), there is also the fact of seaborne sexual frustration and resultant kind of genial misogyny of what is arguably a proto-pinup tradition. Perhaps the reason I could find no conclusive answer to this question is that each ship is (traditionally) ‘manned’ by a consortium of sailors, all with different senses of humour.

s is for ship

NEXT WEEK: T is for Tea

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    February 21, 2011

    Ah, I really wish we could have linked to the Cutty Sark’s 60-strong gallery of figureheads for this entry! Alas, it is closed until the ship is fully restored after the fire damage a few years ago. They’ve even got a figurehead of Florence Nightingale, herself arguably eulogised as a kind of glorified national nanny…

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 21, 2011

    I think that one element in a ship’s figurehead is to have a watchful pair of eyes at the prow, looking out for danger. Consider the eyes traditionally painted on the prows of fishing boats from the Mediterranean eastern Asia

    Returning to sexualised images, the general idea of ship’s figureheads seems present in aircraft nose art: See these,'Sullivan.htm for example. I think that aircraft, as well as, ships have often been referred to as “she”. And I’ve met people who call their cars “she”.

    Here’s another idea, off the top of my head — could a ship be “she” because she carries the sailors like so many foetuses in her womb?

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 21, 2011

    Corrected versions on my links, which seem to have gone wrong:'Sullivan.htm

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      February 21, 2011

      One of those is still wrong. I think the apostrophe is to blame.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        February 28, 2011

        Thank you for correcting the O’Sullivan link!

        The first piece of nose art on that page (“Baby”) connects neatly with the “infant” entry in this alphabet.

  4. David permalink
    February 21, 2011

    On ships = states, one of my favourite etymologies is for “governor” (and, curiously, “cybernetic”), which ultimately derive from the Greek Kybernetes, or “steersman.”

    • Hodge permalink
      February 23, 2011

      Ooh that’s interesting, I wonder if it’s a Plato thing…

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 21, 2011

    Further to my idea that a ship could be “she” because she carries the sailors like so many foetuses in her womb, it occurs to me that a ship disgorges the sailors when she berths. If I follow the online etymological dictionary correctly, “berth” stems from the same roots as “birth”. In berthing is the ship-as-mother giving birth?

  6. Simon permalink
    February 23, 2011

    Whatever the reason for it the ship is definitely a pretty significant metaphor in culture. There seems to be an unspoken link between the common ocean-voyage-as-journey-into-the-infinite-unknown metaphor (a la Tennyson, Moby Dick, Rime of the Ancient Mariner etc.) and the popular perception of sailors as a breed of men somehow more in touch with their basic animal nature (they’re superstitious! They just want to sex and fight!).

    I think Larkin is dryly commenting on this in ‘Next, Please’ (which is also relevant in that it features a figurehead with boobs out):

  7. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 24, 2011

    Although figureheads (and aeroplane nose art) often have the look of sexually stimulating images, during a voyage the sailors wouldn’t usually (ever?) see them. That seems to argue against figureheads serving the function of pin-up pictures. I think that, to get a really good view of the figurehead, a sailor would have needed to leave the ship and look at her from a dinghy.

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