Q&A: The origin of “stevedore”

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, where does “stevedore” come from…

Q: Hi AWC, where does the word “stevedore” come from? Is it after someone named Steve?

A: Yes it is – Steve Dawes is credited as the first person ever to unload something off a boat.

Q: Really?

A: No! Of course not. A “stevedore” is defined in Macquarie Dictionary as “a firm or individual engaged in the loading or unloading of a vessel”. It has nothing to do with the name Steve or Stephen.

Q: Okay, well thanks for that. So then where DOES it come from? It seems like such an unusual word.

A: You’re right, it does seem unusual until you do some digging. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it all starts with the Latin “stipare” – meaning pack down or press. From there, the Spanish words “estibar” and Portuguese “estivar” emerged, which meant “to store cargo” and finally “estibador/estivador” – for a wool-packer or one who loads cargo.

Q: I can see the resemblance.

A: You have to remember that Spain and Portugal were the key players in shipping for many centuries – so it makes sense for the word to develop in this part of the world.

Q: Fair enough.

A: Later, around 1790, this profession entered English initially as “stowadore”. The verb “stow” had been around for many centuries by this point, but the phrase “stow away” for concealing something debuted around this time.

Q: Like someone hiding on a boat?

A: Probably, although it would take another half century before the actual noun “stowaway” became a thing. It’s actually another word we want to follow at this point.

Q: What word?

A: The word “steeve” arose around this time to mean a very specific thing – to tightly pack cargo into a ship’s hold. It also came from “estivar” and was synonymous with “stow” – as well as being the name given for a long ‘derrick’ or pole used for loading the stuff.

Q: Wait, so we have Steve AND Derek now?

A: Haha, yes, we do. Merriam-Webster also points to a third boat-related meaning for “steeve” – to set a bowsprit at an upward inclination. It was quite a busy word.

Q: It certainly was. So when did “stowadore” become “stevedore”?

A: This happened in 1828 – an important date in dictionary history as that was the publication of Noah Webster’s first dictionary. A lot of cleaning up of words was taking place during this time, as well as going back to word origins. It would seem that the phonetic change from the original “estivador” to “stevedore” was made at this point.

Q: And that’s how it stayed?

A: Yep. The word has been used for a dock-worker ever since. In North America, the term “longshoreman” also took hold during the 19th century and the two terms are often used interchangeably in that part of the world today. 

Q: What about in Australia?

A: You’ll still hear “stevedores” used here, but also terms like “wharfies” or “dockers”. Around the mid-20th century, as more and more automation with shipping containers took over, the profession itself started to wane.

Q: Steve, Derek AND now Wayne?!

A: Haha. These days, while individual dockworkers are still known as “stevedores”, it is often the term given for a company that assists in transporting goods from port to port. 

Q: So to recap, “stevedore” got its name because it sounded like the Spanish word “estivador” – and has nothing to do with anyone named Steve?

A: That’s correct! No Steves were harmed in the making of this word.

Q: It does remind me however of my friend Steve who caused a boat to hit the wharf and dent its hull. He insisted it was just a berth mark. 

A: Oh dear… 

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