While talking about ships and countries, is it a good practice to use the feminine form? For example:

"Her economy" - while referring to a country's economy "Her flag (or deck etc)" - while referring to a ship

Is this practice common? Is it used today?

5 Answers 5


Wikipedia is pretty accurate on this one:

The origins of this practice are not certain, and it is currently in decline (though still more common for ships, particularly in nautical usage, than for countries). In modern English, calling objects "she" is an optional figure of speech, and is advised against by most journalistic style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style.

Using “she” for ships is still fairly common, and will not stand out as odd in most contexts; but it is becoming less common, and is discouraged by most authorities (both stylistic and maritime).

Using “she” for countries is now quite archaic. It can certainly still be used, but only if you want to very explicitly conjure up a personification of the country:

Ah, proud Britain! How she is fallen! Once her empire bestrode the globe; now, her power decimated, her economy hobbled, she wavers uncertainly between the behemoths of the US and Europe on either side, …

Except in a case like this where she is used for deliberate rhetorical effect, one would always expect it, its instead:

Britain faces tough years. It stands to receive a fresh influx of immigrants, even while its economy still struggles…

Googling confirms the overwhelming prevalence of its. Even for France, with a comparatively enduring female personification, google hits for "France faces its" outnumber hits for "France faces her" by a factor of about 6 (matching in each case phrases like “France faces her toughest challenge yet…”); and for other countries I tried (eg Britain) the disparity is much larger (a factor of about 100).

  • 2
    Not sure I like the choice of quotes! But otherwise good.
    – Orbling
    Feb 15, 2011 at 0:54
  • Jim Morrison wrote a song about the city of Los Angeles as if the city was a woman.
    – oosterwal
    Feb 15, 2011 at 5:07
  • 4
    @Orbling: well, exemplifying the rhetorical use needs something extravagant, and as a (certain kind of) rather old-fashioned Englishman, I’m much happier being cynical and self-deprecating than openly patriotic (although of course writing so emotionally in any direction doesn’t come naturally to me at all)… :-P
    – PLL
    Feb 15, 2011 at 20:26
  • 3
    LOL, certainly better to be self-deprecating than patriotic. Modesty is the English way.
    – Orbling
    Feb 15, 2011 at 22:10
  • 7
    @Orbling - I thought hanging on in quiet desperation was the English way. I'm gonna have to go find that Pink guy and give him a piece of my mind...
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 21:29

Depending on who you're talking to, it is definitely good practice to use the feminine form for ships.

My friend once worked for the Ministry of Defence and had to telephone the Royal Navy to ask for a ship's current location (let's use HMS Victory).

"I'm calling about HMS Victory. Please can you tell me its current location?" was answered with "Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about", as were his replies "HMS Victory, I'd like to know exactly where it is".

Finally the naval officer explained that ships are referred to as "she", and after the question was rephrased like "where is she?" was an answer given. He never made the same mistake again.

  • 1
    Sticklers, the Naval lot.
    – Orbling
    Sep 8, 2011 at 13:52
  • 8
    @Orbling - Yeah. Just try calling one of their ships a "boat", and see what different shades they turn.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 9, 2011 at 18:59
  • 2
    @T.E.D. Unless of course you're talking about a submarine.
    – Hugo
    Sep 9, 2011 at 19:05
  • 3
    So you think an anecdote about a single pendant justifies the usage of archaic phrasing?
    – MarcusJ
    Jan 28, 2015 at 18:32
  • 2
    @MarcusJ: It doesn't necessarily justify it, but ships are still often referred to using feminine pronouns, especially by the Royal Navy. It often makes sense to adjust your language for your audience.
    – Hugo
    Jan 28, 2015 at 18:45

Ships are usually called she on the grounds that they have definite personalities; if you feel that the computerized container ship Osaka Maru No. 37 does not qualify, it will certainly be understood.

And some countries are feminine; both Britain and Russia have been commonly referred to as 'the Motherland' and personified as Britannia and Mother Russia respectively. But others are not: Germany is well-known to be 'the Fatherland'. I would have thought Uncle Sam's land is also masculine, but would be glad of some definite information.


I am a Master Mariner and ships have always been referred to in the female gender. In ancient days of old ships usually always bore female names. "It takes a lot of work and tender loving care, as well as a lot of paint to make a ship look good" Most sailing ships from the middle ages always had a statue of a female on the upper bow, right under the bowsprit...


I would say for nations it's kind of archaic but for ships I don't see why it would fall out of use. It's just traditional to refer to ships as "she" or "her" and is not in any way sexist or offensive to women. Anyone finding offense in this matter is trying awfully hard to get offended. Another example of political correctness run amok.

  • 5
    That's a pretty big leap of opinion there. Personally, I don't think it's my place to judge when somebody else should be allowed to be offended. It will likely fall out of use over time. I'm a guy and I find it to be a creepy practice.
    – Preston
    Jan 20, 2014 at 2:43
  • You're right, it's not sexist or offensive to women. but it is to men.
    – MarcusJ
    Jan 28, 2015 at 18:33

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