A friend of Mari-Lou's has told her that in the old days, people traveled "on foot" or "on horseback," and the preposition "by" only entered the fray with the advent of trains and cars ("How are you getting there?" - "By car"). As she pondered on it, as is her commendable habit, she came to the conclusion that, perhaps, no one ever used the expression "by ship" until then.

This, of course, is wrong on so many levels. Long-distance horseback travel was not for everybody. No woman traveled on horseback unless she was insane; and no man chose to ride for more than an hour if he could avoid it. Couriers did when the matter was urgent; a nobleman's or king's escort did spend a lot of time in the saddle, traveling slowly, in the wake of their employee's carriage, on the chance highway robbers might attack, or petitioners annoy, the traveler. Cowboys did, too, when they had to move cattle over long distances - again, very slowly (at said cattle's pace).

People who have watched way too many musketeer and/or cowboy movies should ask themselves this simple question: what do you think will happen to your buttocks and your groin if you spend eight to ten hours in the saddle (with no bathing facilities awaiting you at the end of the ride) and then have to do it all over the following day? And the day after that? I mean, even in Dumas' very romantic first novel of the series, it did take d'Artagnan five days to reach the Channel (from Paris), and he was in a hurry (and an excellent rider).

In the 15th Century, Louis XI of France established the first European post office, called la Poste Royale; the main post office building in New York (a.k.a. the Farley Building, built in the style of Academic Classicism) has a sign on the facade giving old Louis credit:

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The expression "to travel by post" meant one could, for a fee, use the system to get from point A to point B, with fresh horses awaiting the harried traveler at every relay station, fed and ready to be harnessed. "Voyage par la poste" it was called, unless I'm much mistaken.

The fabled American equivalent came a few centuries later: the Yankees and their grumpy reluctant southern compatriots traveled by stagecoach (average speed: 4 mph; fees: moderate; audacious highway robbers and belligerent Indians, I mean, Native Americans, everywhere).

Most European countries, from Russia to Spain, established their own versions of this system in between. People traveled by post.

Now comes the hard part.

"By ship," "on board ship," "by sail"? None of the above?

To be sure, the phrase "to travel by sea" (as well as its overland counterpart, "by land") was very much in use. Here's a passage from Byron's Don Juan:

The approach of home to husbands and to sires,
After long travelling by land or water,
Most naturally some small doubt inspires—
A female family 's a serious matter

And here's another one:

She had resolved that he should travel through
All European climes, by land or sea,
To mend his former morals, and get new,
Especially in France and Italy.

Well and good, but did people also say "by ship"? That, I'm afraid, is the question.

  • Eeek! No, the user never said: nobody ever used the expression "by ship" until then, it was me who was wondering if that expression was ever used before the advent of motor vehicles.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 0:27
  • The rest of the question is pretty much perfect. Thank you. Did people before the 19th century say "travel / sail / go by ship"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 0:31
  • @Mari-LouA: Poetic license. But I do see how credit should be given where credit is due. Hang on a sec.
    – Ricky
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 0:58
  • google.com/…
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 1:01
  • @Jim the number of hits is misleading, there are no more results beyond the second page. There are also a fair number of duplicates among the results, but there are instances of go by ship, which is great. Thanks.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 1:10

1 Answer 1


Gower uses it at least three times in Confessio Amantis (ca. 1390):

Fro thenne he goth toward Ytaile
Be Schipe, and there his arivaile
Hath take, and schop him forto ryde. —4.93-5

This king of which thou hast herde sein,
Fro Troie as he goth hom ayein
Be Schipe … — 6.1415-17

And he desguised fledde awaie
Be schipe . . . — 6.1807-8

There are also several references to letters and wheat being brought hither and thither 'by ship'.

I've also found a use 200 years earlier, from Layamon's Brut (ca 1190-1215, but the citation is from an MS of about 1275)

Ba bi londen and bi scipen, Cadwaðlan and his men ofte gunnen fusen to cumen to þissen londen.

  • Splendid! I'm a bit puzzled by "be" and "by," though. Were they interchangeable or something?
    – Ricky
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 2:01

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