Why are Boats Called She?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

The exact reason why boats are called she in English is lost to history. While explanations abound, most appear to be of the folk variety, assumed or invented after the fact as a way to make sense of the phenomenon. Boats are a truly interesting case in English, as they are among the only inanimate objects that take a gendered pronoun, whereas most others are called it. Countries are also called she, as are cars sometimes, but the latter example is almost certainly an extension from boats.

Old English used gendered nouns, and its word for 'ship' was feminine.
Old English used gendered nouns, and its word for 'ship' was feminine.

One plausible theory is that boats are traditionally given female names, typically the name of an important woman in the life of the boat's owner, such as his mother. It has also been surmised that all ships were once dedicated to goddesses, and later to important mortal women when belief in goddesses waned. Interestingly, although male captains and sailors historically attributed the spirit of a benevolent female figure to their ships, actual women were considered very bad luck at sea.

Many historical vessels, such as the Susan Constant, which was one of the ships that settled the Jamestown colonists, had female names.
Many historical vessels, such as the Susan Constant, which was one of the ships that settled the Jamestown colonists, had female names.

A second theory points to the existence of grammatical gender in most Indo-European languages besides English. While Modern English has hardly any grammatical gender, limited for the most part to cases of natural gender, such as the nouns "woman" and "man" being called she and he respectively, there is evidence that English once had a more extensive system of grammatical gender, similar to that in languages such as German and French. In most Indo-European languages with grammatical gender, the word for "ship" is feminine. In Old English texts, there is more evidence of objects being given a gender.

Because English is an Indo-European language, it is most likely that it once had grammatical gender and lost it, since it would be highly unlikely for all the other Indo-European languages with grammatical gender to have acquired the feature independently rather than inheriting it from a common background. Linguistic historians have postulated that proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical "mother language" to all modern Indo-European languages, originally had two genders: animate and inanimate. The inanimate category later split into feminine and neuter, giving three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. As each language evolved, so did this system, so that it has become different in each modern-day Indo-European language.

Whether the fact that boats are called she is a throwback to an ancient system of grammatical gender that has disappeared from English in all but a few instances or an analogy to the reverence that sailors have for the women in their lives, the phenomenon is one of the most interesting anomalies in Modern English. Recently, advocates of gender-neutral or non-sexist language have proposed that ships be referred to as it, like any other inanimate object.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


Can anyone tell me if it's OK to use feminine pronouns when referring to boats in formal writing?


Anon74444 is correct with the Latin. Navis is the Latin word for boat/ship and it is "feminine".


To me it would seem the most logical reason may be down to sailors at sea (men), with no companion women. No women at sea because after weeks/months at sea, men's minds would sooner or later drift from the intensive job at hand to the matter of female 'companionship', and the whole fighting over a woman thing to boot. Therefore, making the ship the female object, the men are expected to regard the boat in absence of the female.

OK, I've not worded it very well, but hopefully one gets the picture.


Does 'she' goes to all boats including warships in English? I thought warships were called 'Man-of-wars'.


Hey anon110694 (post #10) Thanks for the poetic insight! That is exactly how I feel aboard my boat. If there ever comes a time when boats are no longer given the honor and reverence of being referred to as "she" something truly inspiring and beautiful will be lost.


has anyone regarded the notion of the 'vessel' in relationship to that of the womb? -- cargo with care -- that seems the most logical explanation!

even the boats named after men are often referred as a 'she' by her sailors. And I don't think curves have as much to do with this.


Yes, Poster 5 and Thrivial. When I am upon and within my sloop, I am with her and trusting that (with my help) she will cradle and protect me to voyage's end, whether it be 20 miles or 1,000. She is 'my darling' and insane though it sometimes feels to me, there is a palpable affection and trust between us when I am below decks. That she is of oak and spruce is irrelevant.


In ancient times, mariners named their vessels after female deities in hopes of safety and blessings of luck. It also has to do with female worship which was turned over during the forming of the judeo-christian era.

Warships and modern day commercial vessels are named after men, or one's idea of taste, as in plentyofish or some other thought. As what happens with tradition naming a vessel has gone by the wayside. Now we are stuck with chick magnet or justntime or greed.

Once again we are are dumbing down generation after generation.


In my opinion when a cargo/container/load is made through more than one ship/vessel/boat, the first one on which container/cargo/load is load called mother vessel, because it gives a birth of cargo/container to the connecting vessel. in that sense its called "she".


Thrival: Love your comment. Very well said!

Most picturesque.


Could it be that as much of our language stems from latin and the latin ending for boat is feminine that we call boats she as a throwback to this? (I am a 16 year old student of latin so am probably wrong and am sorry if i made a mistake)

Vicky R.


The Latin origin is not correct, as 'barco' is male, as is 'navio'. She has to imply the contrary and fickle, 'bosom/womb' of the vessel and man's reliance on her for all sustenance. I can say this because I am female!


All boats, especially traditional ones, are all curves! There is nothing very straight or square about any boat or any woman. Even the mast and boom are seldom exactly straight. Certainly, the hull is most womblike in form.

I have always sailed and always called my vessel "She". It brings me closer to the "womb" of protection that allows me to be on the great waters. Without "Her", I would drown.

Boats and ships used to require a lot more maintenance. These days, fiberglass needs very little and that is its most alluring feature. But, our relationship with the boat, "herself", becomes less intimate, but not entirely, since "she" still "holds" us when we are out in "her".

I grew up on wooden boats and they do seem to have more "soul" than production plastic ones. However, that sloop sitting out there still feels like a "She" to me. She is definitely NOT an "IT"! Or a "He". And yet, I am a She, myself.

To be a success at sea, you must collaborate with your vessel. If you call her "it", how friendly a relationship are you going to have?

"She" seems to acknowledge the intimate relationship you need in order to address the vulnerability you have to the mercy of the ocean and its tempers.


Actually, the calling of vessels "she" goes way back. Imagine an ancient ship under sail, viewed in profile. The rounded shape of wind filled sails reminded men of a woman's bosom.

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