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In the poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman, it seems to me the narrator is crossing a passage with a ferry. But doesn't the title literally mean he is crossing the ferry itself?

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    It is common, in parts of the US, for a route across a body of water to be referred to as a "ferry".
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 17, 2015 at 18:31

3 Answers 3

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Walt Whitman wrote in the 19th century, when "crossing the ferry" was a more common phrase than either "crossing by the ferry" or "crossing on the ferry".

See Ngram.

Why does this make sense? In the 19th century, ferry meant not only the boat, but also the place on the river where you crossed using the boat.

From Webster's International Dictionary, 1892:

A place, also a boat, for transporting passengers or freight over a river, etc.

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  • That's really interesting. Can you back it up with other examples from a corpus or an explanation of why it made sense? I'd be really interested. I can't see why anyone would make "ferry" mean "stretch of water". Thanks Jul 17, 2015 at 15:16
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    @chasly from UK: done. Indeed ferry did mean "place along a river where a ferryboat operated", as you might be able to deduce by names of towns like "Harper's Ferry". Jul 17, 2015 at 15:24
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    en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ferry Jul 17, 2015 at 15:26
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    @chaslyfromUK to me it seems a perfectly logical transfer of meaning. "Ferry" the vehicle becomes "ferry" the place, as in "it's next to Fulton ferry." The name refers to the ferry crossing itself (analogous to a bridge), not actually to the stretch of water. Note that Fulton Street in Brooklyn is arguably an extension of its namesake in Manhattan, as they were once joined by Fulton ferry.
    – phoog
    Jul 17, 2015 at 15:29
  • @phoog: actually, according the the OED, ferry has meant both the place of crossing and the boat used to cross since the late 13th century (their citation for the place is 4 years earlier than for the boat, but they have one for ferryman 100 years before that, so the record really can't tell which came first). The word originally came from some Scandinavian language in which it meant the boat. Jul 17, 2015 at 15:35
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OED sense 2 (“Now somewhat rare”):

A crossing over a river or other stretch of water which is served by a ferry boat. Also: a place at which a ferry boat departs or lands.

In sum, especially in older usage, ferry could refer to the stretch of water traversed by the boat (and its passengers) as well as to the boat itself.

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Ferries in the old days were often not so much a boat as a raft pulled across the water by a rope attached at each end to opposite shores. In these cases, the ferry includes the rope and by extension the route travelled by the raft as it's towed along the rope. Therefore "crossing a ferry" had a meaning very similar to "crossing a bridge", i.e. "following a guided route across the water".

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