Q&A: Port, starboard, bow, stern… boating terms explained

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, ship shape…

Q: Hi AWC, can you help with a boat question?

A: Is it about the popular reality show Below Deck? Because we don’t really want to be giving out spoilers…

Q: No it’s about navigation on a boat.

A: Perhaps a compass would help? Or you could get one of those sextant things and navigate by the stars.

Q: Ah, you misunderstand. I mean ON the boat. I always get my afts and ports and bows and starboards mixed up. Can you help?

A: We certainly can! Probably the easiest place to start is with the “left” and “right” words – “port” and “starboard” as you face forwards. The left side is “port” and the easiest way to remember it is that they have the same number of letters.

Q: That’s handy. But WHY call the left side “port”? The harbour won’t always be on the left!

A: Well it WAS back in the 1540s when this word was first used. The reason being that on many boats of that time, the steering oar was on the right side, meaning that the left side of the wharf was up against the wharf – the “port” side!

Q: Well okay! But why not just call the right side, “oar” or something?

A: Well it IS related to that – but rather the “steer” part. The original word came from Old English “steorbord” meaning “steer-board” – the “bord” was the ship’s side. 

Q: Aha!

A: In fact, the original name for the left side was “larboard” – which related to “laden” and the side of the ship that you load things onto. But in the 16th century, left became “port” largely to make it less confusing when said aloud on the high seas.

Q: That would have been confusing.

A: Just as confusing, the left side was also sometimes known as the “backboard” during this time – despite having nothing to do with the back of the ship.

Q: Well that brings us nicely to actual names for the back of a ship. What are they?

A: The most common name for the back of the ship is the “stern”. Its companion at the front is the “bow”. 

Q: Origin stories?

A: Once more, the “stern” relates to steering, as it was at the back where you’d find the rudder or steering helm. It seems to have come to English very early – the 1200s – from the Norse word ‘stjorn’ (“steering”) or the Old Frisian word ‘stiarne’ (“rudder”). Later, during the 19th century, some steamboats had the name “stern-wheelers” as they had the big wheel at the back.

Q: So it’s nothing to do with being harsh – to be stern?

A: Nope. That adjective has a different origin, from Old English and Germanic root words that related to being rigid or stiff.

Q: Okay, so you said “bow” is the front. Is that because when they pick up the boat from the dealer, it has a giant bow on it? They did that with my Toyota Corolla.

A: Cute idea, but no. The word “bow” (rhyming with “cow”, not “mow”) arrived in the 14th century, from the Middle English “boue” – meaning to bend. The bow on a ship therefore is from where the sides start bending in to meet each other.

Q: Kind of like the shape of a bow, yeah?

A: That’s right. Same word, different pronunciation! Incidentally, the word “bow” in relation to bending in reverence – such as to bow to the King – didn’t come along until three centuries later, around 1650.

Q: Alright, that’s four biggies covered. But then what is “aft”? 

A: Okay, so aft – from the Old English “aeftan” – simply means behind or farthest back. In the case of a boat, it is more of an area than a specific point, and is typically referred to as the area towards the stern or back.

Q: What is its opposite?

A: That’s even easier – the “forward” is the area towards the front of a boat. Sometimes this is shortened to “fore”, such as in the nautical term “fore-and-aft” – meaning from one end of the ship to the other.

Q: So they’re basically the same as bow and stern?

A: No. There is one important difference. The bow and stern refer to the outside face of the boat/ship. Meanwhile, the fore(ward) and aft are the insides.

Q: For example, a cruise ship might say the viewing deck is forward, while the adults only pool is aft?

A: That’s right. Anything inside the edges of the vessel. So the forward is up near the bow end, while the aft is back towards the stern.

Q: So in Titanic, Rose and Jack meet at the aft, when she’s about to jump off the stern. And then later, they do that arms-out thing forward at the bow?

A: That’s right. Although the important thing to remember is that Jack saved Rose from jumping but then Rose went on to hog that floating door all to herself.

Q: Unthinkable!

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