When Admiral Chester W Nimitz, the architect of the Allies victory in the Pacific during WW2, was asked this question, he replied; "A ship is always referred to as 'she' because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder." But pre-feminist jokes aside, the question is one that deserves a proper answer. Why do we refer to ships as if they were female?
One explanation I have seen can be quickly dismissed. It isn’t a relic from a time when nouns had genders in Old English. A brief look at languages that still use this grammatical form today shows no pattern. Ships are feminine in Latin, masculine in French, and neuter in German, for example. The Oxford English dictionary dates the first case of a ship being referred to as female to 1375, but the practice was probably older still. By the 1370s gendered nouns had long disappeared from the language, which means that the choice to refer to a ship as if it were a woman must have been intentional.
A more likely explanation comes from considering the ages of most sailors during the era of sail. The gnarled old seadog of popular imagination was very much the exception. Going aloft, often in bad weather, required a level of athleticism, strength and skill that had to be acquired through long practice from childhood. A survey of Royal Navy seamen who served between 1764 and 1782 shows that over 80% were under the age of 25, and the majority of these were below the age of 20. Given that the navy pressed their crews from the merchant service, this is likely to reflect sailors’ ages more generally.
The typical seaman would have joined his first ship as a child. In the Royal Navy the earliest age was officially either thirteen or eleven, for those with a male relative already serving onboard, but there are many examples of younger children joining ships. Such children would certainly have been missing home, in an alien environment full of harshness and danger. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how they might come to think of the ship that protected them from the elements, and provided them with warmth and shelter, in maternal terms.
Another plausible explanation stems from the inherent superstitious character of seamen. The danger of travel by sea has led many mariners over the millennia to seek the protection of their gods. The earliest ships were built by the Ancient Egyptians six thousand years ago, and they are known to have carried wooden statues of their deities on the prow. Other maritime powers followed their lead and, in time, these evolved into the elaborate carved figureheads of the age of sail. In most pagan religions the more aggressive, warlike deities tend to be male, while those offering protection and nurture tend to be female.
It is the protection that seafarers really need. Even in the 18th century Royal Navy, during time of war, fatalities through shipwreck and drowning greatly exceeded those of combat. It seems a natural extension from seeking the protection of a feminine deity, to regarding the ship whose sturdy timbers surround you as also female. It is surely no coincidence that the majority of figureheads that survive are female and that there is a definite gender slant in the naming of ships towards female names.
Although Christianity is a monotheistic religion, sailors were still able to appeal for female protection through the cult of the Virgin Mary. In pre-reformation Europe, Mary was one of the most popular names for a ship. The first major warship ordered by Henry VIII’s after he came to the throne was named Mary Rose after her. Renaming ships is generally considered unlucky, but it was a risk that Christopher Columbus was prepared to take in 1492, given he was about to sail into the unknown. His principle ship had been called La Gallega, the home state of its owner (Galicia), but Columbus rechristened the vessel Santa Maria.
Those who make their living ashore, myself included, are often surprised by the degree to which superstition governed the lives of seafarers, and how tenacious such beliefs and practices can be. Consider how ships are launched. Those in the ancient world are known to have been accompanied by sacrificing animals, and even slaves, to appease the sea gods. In post-Christian Europe wine spilt from a chalice by a priest replaced blood. It is easy to dismiss this as so much mumbo-jumbo from the past. Except that we still sacrifice a bottle of wine against the hull of a new ship today, a ceremony that is almost always performed by a woman.