Unsexed at sea

April 13, 2002

A SHIP IS A she, by maritime tradition, but who cares for tradition? Modern ships are boxy, ugly, lacking in mystery, and conveyors of goods among modern nations that might look askance at potential slights to an entire sex.

Lloyd's List, the daily newspaper of maritime insurance, announced recently that from now on, in line with the times, a ship will be an it. Hard-pressed to argue with that decision, we nevertheless kept poking at the thought, the way you might pick at a piece of peeling paint, right there along the seam in a deck.

Can Lloyd's toss off all of human experience, just like that? And what about gender in language, anyway?

Well, gender's a good subject, but it turns out that the fine old tradition of a ship as a she isn't quite so old as we imagined. Back when Lloyd's first went to press - 268 years ago - a ship wasn't a she at all. She was a he. Think of John Paul Jones, and his man-of-war. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that ships were considered masculine, and referred to accordingly, in the 1700s. Before that, though, they often got the she-treatment. Shakespeare did it. Yet the earliest known reference to a ship as a she in an English dialect was only in 1375.

Before that? This is where we have to get into gender.

Anyone who's ever studied another European language should remember something about nouns being masculine or feminine, or in some cases neuter. The neuter is what we ended up with exclusively in English. But people who speak foreign tongues go around most of the day referring to all sorts of inanimate objects as he's and she's. To them, the idea of stripping a noun of its gender makes no sense. In French, for instance, a boat is a he, and so is a ship. In Russian, a ship is a he but a boat is a she.

And it happens that in Old English, which admitted to gender but which fizzled out in the early years of the last millennium, a boat (bat) was a he, and if a ship was a scip it was a neutered it, but if it was a naca it was a he.

Linguists argue about whether grammatical gender has any correlation at all to conscious ideas of male and female. Let's leave that debate to them. We have a different point to make.

For the last few hundred years, English speakers have given ships a feminine identity. What that implies about the mentality of seamen we can also leave to others to think about. But it seems that changing that admittedly malleable tradition at this point is part of a larger effort to cleanse the language of implied sexism. It's the same impulse that has frowned on words like waitress or actress.

But elsewhere, just for the record, the movement is precisely the other way around. Feminine forms of doctor and professor are creeping into Spanish - because why should a woman who has earned a degree be forced to accept a masculine noun as her title? In Russian, a businessman is a biznismen (yes, that's the singular). His female partner is a biznismenka. In gendered languages, you can't ignore the gender.

We're left with plain English. A fine language - but can't she have a little fun once in a while?

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