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Are Ships, Cars, and Nations Always Called 'She'?

Nobody knows why people started calling ships "she." Old English nouns had genders, but experts don't think this is the reason for ships being treated as female.

By
Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty ,
August 2, 2018

If you are lucky enough to own a boat, is it a “she”? Have you given your car a girl’s name or a boy’s name? Do you refer to the place you’re from as your motherland or as your fatherland? The tendency to use female names and pronouns to refer to nonliving things such as ships and cars is an example of personification, giving human characteristics to nonhuman things. There are a few exceptions, though. Not all boat and car owners choose female names for their vehicles, and some nations tend to be “male.” Join us as we take a little voyage to various places on various modes of transportation.

Female Pronouns for Objects

Both hardcover (1) and online dictionaries agree: The pronoun “she” can refer to inanimate objects. The entries for the pronoun “he,” on the other hand, do not mention anything about personification. So, it is common to hear a ship or a car referred to as “she” but not as “he.”

Ships

Let’s start with ships and boats. Have you heard the nautical phrase “There she blows” or its variant “Thar she blows”? You might think this refers to a boat, but in fact it is a reference to Moby Dick, that famous whale from Herman Melville’s novel of the same name. This book was published in 1851. In Chapter 133, Ahab exclaims, “There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” The ship that this fictional crew was sailing was called the Pequod, and—congratulations!—it is a girl. In Chapter 16, the ship is described like this: “You never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything.” 

One of the oldest ships on record is Noah’s Ark, but the Bible does not use a female pronoun to refer to this vessel. Rather, in “Genesis,” the Ark does not have a gender. It says, “It took Noah 120 years to build the ark and find all the animals to put in it, but Noah obeyed God and did just as he was told.” 

Calling ships 'she' goes back at least as far as 1380.

It is not clear exactly when ships became female, but it is a long tradition. The earliest example of a ship being referred to as female in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word “she” is from circa 1380, and the dictionary includes an intriguing note that “the grammatical gender of the French words…may have influenced the translators.” So maybe we can blame the French and their gendered nouns. (Multiple sources say that even though Old English nouns also had gender, this is probably not the reason English speakers called ships “she.”) Anyway, doesn’t Queen Elizabeth II sound better than Bob as a name for a ship?

Still, today the AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style recommend using “it” instead of “she” when you’re writing about ships.

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