Why is a ship called a ‘she’?

English grammar taught me that nouns (and pronouns) can be classified in three distinct genders according to the forms taken by the adjectives they can associate with and I remember how I used to distinguish them when I was in school. It was not very difficult, as English is a very friendly and far more logical language (at least regarding this specific area) compared with German (for example) where nouns can belong to very different genders that the ones they should. I will never understand why a ‘perfectly’ female noun like ‘girl – Madchen’ is neuter in gender in the German language (das Madchen) and not feminine as it is in other languages. Anyhow, some things are better left unexplained and people like us should comply with all the rules and regulations any language is based on in order to speak and understand it properly.

Things are a little different with a certain English noun that is more likely to belong to the feminine gender instead of neuter. The noun I am talking about is SHIP (and all other synonyms or connected nouns – vessel, yacht, boat). In the real world – ashore and far away from the daily routine of working on a ship (of any kind) – this particular noun belongs to its usual gender – neuter – as it does not refer to a human being, but on board, the ship will always be a ‘she’, everybody will speak about ‘her’ (not ‘it’) and seafarers – who are mostly men – will always prefer this name to the other – neuter and distant – ‘it’.

The first time I came on the vessel, I heard all the deck officers speaking about the ‘ship’ and calling it ‘she’: ‘She is a very good ship. She moves very well. She is two hundred and something meter long.’ It was a little strange for me to hear all this talk about a ‘she’ as I knew I was the only ‘female’ on board.

A short while ago, I came across a very interesting explanation for all this theory and everything became very clear for me now. The ‘interesting and funny explanation’ came in the form of a picture frame hanging on a wall inside the Seafarer’s Mission in the port of Napier, New Zealand. I immediately understood and accepted the idea – even if I can never call it like this and I am sure a ship is a ‘she’ only for the male seafarers and never for the other women on board.

I asked permission to take a photo of the ‘poem’ and I am adding it here. I hope all the seafarers’ wives will understand why their husbands speak sometimes about a ‘she’ when they are describing their ship.

A ‘ship’ is a ‘she’ and it looks like everybody is happy with ‘her’ as long as ‘she’ is ‘happy’ to provide a safe working environment for ‘her’ crew.

I still reserve my right to call ‘her’ using the pronoun ‘it’, but I know I will never get jealous of ‘her’ if my husband keeps talking about ‘her’ as if ‘she’ is a female companion.

“A ship is called a ‘she’ because there is always a great deal of bustle around her;

There is usually a gang of men about;

She has a waist and it stays;

It takes a lot of paint to keep her good looking;

It is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep;

She can be all decked out;

It takes an experienced man to handle her correctly;

And without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable;

She knows her topsides, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”


One Response to Why is a ship called a ‘she’?

  1. Elke says:

    Just a comment from a German Mrs “Know-it-all”:
    In German the ending -chen is the diminutive of the nouns. And this is always neuter. The origin, historical German noun for girl is “Madel” or “Magd” and “Maedchen” is its diminutive.


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