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There she blows

There she blows was the cry raised when a whaling boat spotted a whale. How they knew the whale was a female is not clear. Whales are mammals and do show some distinctly human traits -stubbornness in the case of Moby Dick, who was a male sperm male. Humans have a tendency to attribute gender to inanimate objects as well. Ships and yachts are often referred to as she. She is a fine boat.

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This is the process of anthropomorphism, assigning human attributes to a non-human or inanimate object. It is as old as the hills.
‘Like a woman, a ship is unpredictable,’ is an old salty dog’ saying from before the days of woke. The last time I looked a yacht cannot reproduce. Clones, yes, offspring no.

 Ships used to have women as figureheads, as on the Goodship Venus where the figurehead was nude in bed, inspecting the captain’s – you know the rest.

Another suggestion is that this is not anthropomorphism but deification,  imagining the ship as a goddess and mother figure watching over the crew. Ships were often named after deities or members of a shipowner’s family. La Santa Maria was the vessel that Columbus sailed to the New World.

Ironically it used to be considered bad luck to have a woman on board.

For if the sailors prove false to you, well the captain he might prove true To see the honour that I have gained by the wearing of the blue

In the sea shanty,  Canadee-I-O, a woman stows away on board dressed in sailor’s blue. She is discovered and is about to be tossed overboard as a harbinger of bad luck when the captain intervenes, saves and later marries her.

Another theory for this gender assignment to a ship comes from the roots of language. Many Indo-European languages have “male”, “female” and sometimes “neuter” words. Often there is no simple explanation of why one object is female and another male. Why is le ciel male but la nuit female? English just has a neutral case which makes declining adjectives a lot easier. But this assigning gender to an inanimate object may derive from an atavistic psychological need to understand the world in terms of opposites, male and female.  English used to have male and female noun classes up to the medieval period.

In Romance languages, national vernaculars descended from Latin, words ending in a belong to the feminine class, words ending in o to the masculine. In Italian, nave (ship) is feminine whereas in French both bateau and navire are masculine. The original Latin –navis – is feminine. But if we go back to ancient Indian Sanskrit, some three thousand years, nava is masculine. Ships seem to transgender over the years in language.

The word yacht itself derives from a Dutch word which in turn is from High German Jacht, a feminine class noun.

One explanation for the use of she in referring to ships and yachts is that it equates beauty to femininity. This usage has been challenged as objectifying women in terms of physical appearance, or man-splaining. The Lloyd’s Register of Shipping only refers to a ship as it,  neutral.

Here is Nic Jones singing the sea chanty about a woman who stows away dressed in sailor’s blue.

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