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I was reading wikipedia about a ship and it it's always refered as female. Is it unique to ships? I've learn in school that words in english does not have a sex, you can call a cats and dogs as "it".

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    Ships are not female, and you are absolutely right that nouns in English do not carry a gender. That the feminine pronoun "she" and its possessive variants are used to refer to ships is a convention. As to why it is a convention, well, I'm afraid that's difficult to say. Likely it's because the word for "ship" in most Romance languages is always feminine (the English word is closely related etymologically to Romance variants), or perhaps its because old time sailing crews, being composed almost entirely of men, drew some measure of comfort from thinking of the ship as a mother of sorts.
    – R Mac
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 15:34
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    @RMac: I agree completely with the first two sentences of your comment. I don't think your explanation is right. There are lots of words for "ship" in Romance languages that are not feminine. French, the Romance language that has probably had the most influence on English, has the masculine word bateau "boat." The other two translations in French for "ship" that Wikipedia lists are also masculine: vaisseau and navire. I think ships are referred to as "she" in English due to metaphorical associations, not due to any residual grammatical gender.
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 21:25
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    Also related: Is it a good practice to refer to countries, ships etc using the feminine form? Keep in mind that we do not always refer to ships using feminine pronouns. Most people would call a ship "it." Using "she" is a type of personification; it's more common for ships than it is for other objects, but it's certainly not grammatically required.
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 21:38
  • @suməlic The French word "bateau" is etymologically linked to the English word "boat", which is a distinctly different word (in both form and meaning) than the word "ship". The English word "ship" derives etymologically from a Germanic word, not a Romance word, but the Latin word "nāvis", which is closely related in meaning, is feminine. Anyway, it's not likely that an etymological development in naval English has been terribly influenced by Romance languages because sailors weren't generally educated or able to speak or understand those languages.
    – R Mac
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 13:19
  • Nevertheless, those old cultures (from the time when these trends were developing) most definitely did retain a respect for Latin, it being the language of the higher classes (say around 1200-1600).
    – R Mac
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 13:21

1 Answer 1

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The boat is not female in itself. You are correct that the English language does not have a grammatical gender (mostly).

If you have a look at this blog there are several reasons offered for why people use female pronouns when referring to ships. I cite the most reasonable below.

One prosaic explanation is that the gender of the Latin word for “ship” — Navis — is feminine. But people generally agree on the more romantic notion of the ‘ship as a she’ phenomenon: that it stems from the tradition of boat-owners, typically and historically male, naming their vessels after significant women in their lives — wives, sweethearts, mothers. Similarly, and more broadly, ships were once dedicated to goddesses, and later also to mortal women of national or historic significance, thereby bestowing a benevolent feminine spirit on the vessels that would carry seafarers across treacherous oceans. Figureheads on the prows of ships were often depictions of such female namesakes, denoting the name of the ship for a largely illiterate maritime population.

EDIT: Regarding the warships there are comments under the blog of self-professed sailors and navy personnel (I can't vouch for that) who express the following:

In my sailing days it was explained to me that women carry life. Any vessel that can sustain life in an environment that people could not normally sustain life functions without her body should, appropriately, have a feminine name.

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A X-USN Vet., I understood the same as Carlos [the other commenter], like the womb, protecting her child from an uninviting environment. Until we set sail back to shore. Thanks Mom!

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    While not unreasonable, the explanation would not seem to make sense when applied to warships, or at least would need some further explaining. Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 17:15
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    @WhatRoughBeast An extension of the explanation is that ships act as the sailor’s ‘wife at sea’, as it were. This is even more true of warships than fishing boats, since sailors spend longer periods of time at sea in war (and exploration) ships. Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 22:22
  • @WhatRoughBeast I added some comments from the other blog regarding the warship part.
    – Helmar
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 22:29
  • sigh, this answer is a compilation of unsatisfying non-explanational conjectures that I saw reported as is in a youtube video.
    – ZJR
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 15:36

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