In nautical (and aeronautical) contexts, a vessel may declare a number of "souls onboard". I've googled around for origin of that phrase, but haven't found a definitive explanation. Most discussions of the phrase I've seen on aeronautical forums and obviously concern the usage in aviation, with the discussion often revolving around on rescuers tallying the dead after an accident. But the phrase is obviously older than that and used in situations besides emergencies.

Of the explanations I've read, many claim that "souls" is used as it includes passengers and crew, whereas a number on a passenger manifest would only include the former. But even so "people", "humans", or simply "there are 150 onboard" would seem as effective.

While the inclusion of passengers and crew makes sense, I can't help but wonder what the requirements are for being counted as a "soul" and whether they've changed. Whether it's always meant "living human being" or if it was used to expressly exclude certain individuals rather than include them. For instance, would it include the (presumably non-babtized) "cargo" in the days of slave trade? A morbid thought, I admit.

It may just be tradition based in "souls" sounding more dignified than "humans", and the religion-laden language of its day. Yet I can't help but wonder.

Clarification: The answers here so far concern aviation usage, yet I simply mentioned aviation because that's the context in which I've seen the phrase discussed. But my question is about its original etymology; not its current usage. The phrase comes from a nautical context, but why did sailors use the word "souls"?

I understand the meaning of the phrase, and I understand that it makes sense as an inclusive term to mean "everyone onboard". I also understand that by now it's become traditional. But again the question is about its origin. Since a word like "persons" would be equally unambiguous (and as David Schwartz points out below, "persons" is indeed a valid alternative in modern aviation), why use "souls" instead? Was it for instance originally meant as an exclusive term?

Some of the explanations I've seen elsewhere:

  • "Souls" excludes human remains being transported (in an aviation context this would help crash responders sort out crash victims from those already dead, but again the phrase predates aircraft and aircraft crashes)
  • It refers back to "S.O.S" for "save our souls" (which must be wrong since that's not what S.O.S means. The code was chosen for its morse pattern and not as an acronym, and anyway the phrase is older than morse code too)
  • "Souls" excludes lawyers and managers… (no comment)

By the way, in aviation it seems the phrase is sometimes abbreviated as "S.O.B", much to the delight of some pilots, especially when pluralized: "We've got 40 SOBs here. And two pilots."

  • Could this date from a time when, to those in command, not all people on board would have been considered to be owners of a soul? Examples: slaves in galleys or slave transports, or even crew members who were not of the same faith?
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 14:03
  • @JeffSahol: That's exactly what I'm wondering; whether the term was deliberately chosen to exclude certain individuals or other faiths or those considered somehow "less than human". Or if it was just a product of religion in common speech (like the French "adieu" or the Spanish "adios" simply meaning "goodbye" although technically both translate as "to God")
    – Flambino
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 15:24
  • 1
    I have seen old maps (late 1700s, early 1800s) which count the population of American Indian nations in numbers of souls.
    – user59384
    Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 15:05

7 Answers 7


Strictly speaking "souls on board" has a different meaning from all of your other constructions.

"There are 150 on board" can't be turned into a question. The official phraseology is "say souls on board [and fuel remaining]" -- there are no questions in ATC official phraseology. "Say number onboard" really is ambiguous and could be understood to mean only passengers.

Strictly speaking, "people" or "humans" is ambiguous too. For example is a dead person still a person? This is a rational concern with "say passengers onboard" (which might not include crew) and "say number onboard" (which is ambiguous).

But nobody with any functioning brain cells could possibly misunderstand "say persons onboard". This is an officially-acceptable civil aviation alternative to "souls onboard", as are the written abbreviations SOB and POB.

There is actually a dispute over whether "souls on board" should count entire human remains. The civil aviation standard is that a dead body is cargo and not counted. The RAF standard, and that of many other military organizations, is that dead bodies are "souls" being returned and they count them. Whether that makes sense depends on exactly what the figure is for. Is it to know how many bodies to look for? Is it to know how many people perished? (Perhaps it does not matter so long as both sides know what they're doing, and they make this a point of respect.)

In any event, no more detailed origin is known, as far as I've been able to tell. There's just lots of speculation. It was definitely originally a nautical term.

  • Very interesting points, especially concerning the military usage. However, it's specifically the origin I'm interested in; not so much its modern-day usage. It makes sense to use souls as its unambiguous (or at least as unambiguous as it gets), but as you say "persons" is a valid alternative. So why did sailors use "souls" to begin with? If the answer is lost to time, then that's that, but I've just always wondered
    – Flambino
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 18:19

I suspect the usage was to remove any ambiguity. "Person" could mean

A man or woman of high rank, distinction, or importance; a personage. Usually (and now only) with modifying word or phrase.

(OED) , and so might exclude stowaways and native crew. Every human being, however, has a soul(at least in the form of Christianity formerly unquestioned). The point is not whether (for example) the captain needed to know how many persons would pay for meals as opposed to how many souls needed a place in the lifeboats; it is that persons (or people, men or creatures) could be misunderstood in time of stress, whereas souls could not.

  • That's what I'm after; is souls indeed an all-inclusive term? The more I've thought about it, the more I think it probably is. I started out thinking that perhaps "soul" was reserved for Christian seafarers (and that the non-Christian deckhands etc. would be "ignored"). But while I'm not religious, I imagine one human being would, from a Christian standpoint, equal one soul regardless of the person's religion. Very interesting point about person meaing "personage" by the way
    – Flambino
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 17:28

OED Online entry for Soul n. (link may require OED access to view). Emphasis mine:

III. An individual person, and related senses. 9.a. A person; an individual. In early use also: a living thing. Chiefly with preceding number or quantifier, as every.

Freq. applied to the number of people on board a ship or other large vehicle.

The earliest citation in this general sense of counting human beings was in Old English c1180 (Ælfric · Old English Hexateuch):

"Syxti & seofontene saulen..of Lamech" ("Sixty and seventeen souls of Lamech")

Earliest nautical sense is 1390 (Castle of Love (Vernon)):

"But eiȝte soulen, þat weren iȝemed In þe schup." ("But eight souls, that were gomed [manned] in the ship.")

So this is been around for centuries if not millennia. It was not coined in nautical use but was in broader use at first. I would venture to say that counting "souls" might once have been the usual way of enumerating people, and that in modern times its use has become more limited.


The phrase has nautical roots, there are plenty of 18th century instances of ships going down with a given number souls on board, and all or some of them perishing. When talking of souls rather than the bodies, it clearly highlights how easily it can be for the two to be separated and the fine line between life and death, especially in a pursuit as dangerous as sailing used to be.

Occasionally it was also used to say how many people departed on a ship or in a fleet, when the ship didn't necessarily sink, but still it reminds of the mortal danger of a life at sea, especially for naval ships: discipline, disease, death, drowning...

Finally, according to Ngrams, "men on board" and "people on board" are more common than "souls on board", especially when not discussing life-threatening situations.



The use of the term 'loss of souls' at sea may have been to distinguish, on the one hand, human losses from, on the other hand, losses to life resulting from cargo such as cattle which — presumably in the mind of those who made the distinction — were lives lost but not souls lost. Whether or not animals can harbour souls is a philosophical question debated from the works of Plato & Aristotle through to Hume.


My guess is the term originated as an all-inclusive term, not a term of exclusion. A vessel responding to a sinking ship needed to know how many "humanoid life-forms" there were on the sinking ship so they could tell when they had found everybody. As noted above, "person" or "people" might exclude slaves or servants in some situations whereas the term "souls" would mean every human on board. Slaves, infidels and all other humans were (are) considered by Christians to have souls even though their souls may not yet be "saved" through Christian baptism. Witness the time and energy that slave owners spent converting their slaves to Christianity so those slaves' souls could be "saved."

Suppose a ship captain responding to an SOS was told there were 50 "people" on board when in fact there were 100 "souls" on board because there were also 50 slaves/servants/laskars/whatever on board. In the confusion of the rescue (think: dark stormy night), the captain would pull 50 bodies (dead or alive) out of the water and assume he had everyone, leaving 50 people (almost certainly including some rich white people) behind in the water. If the captain was told there were 100 "souls" on board, he would know to keep looking until he had 100 humans (dead or alive) on the deck and he would be reasonably sure he had gotten everyone.


It's to avoid ambiguity

An aircraft might have 100 passengers with tickets
Plus 5 infants not occupying a seat
Plus 10 cabin crew
Plus 2 flight crew
Plus 1 jump seat occupying transiting pilot

So "passengers", or "passengers and crew" might give different answers depending on if you are concerned about the number of meals to order, the amount of income generated or the number of bodies to look for.

Souls on board is just a way of saying "people on board", the odd usage is either from older sailing tradition or because people might have different translations.

  • I do understand the reasons why the term is still used (indeed I put the very same explanation (that "souls" includes everybody onboard) in my question. But I'm wondering how it came about originally (i.e. in sailing). If, as David Schwartz mentions, "persons" is also valid, unambiguous term, why hasn't that always been the term?
    – Flambino
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 17:58
  • @Flambino - I'm guessing that since it came from an earlier naval usage 'person' might be more ambiguous. Able seamen, newly press-ganged, 'wives', laskars, slaves, servants might not necessarily be counted as 'persons' in all societies or languages. I have seen ships documents that listed "X passengers and crew - not counting laskars" (ie Indian crew)
    – mgb
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 19:43
  • Interesting. The question remains, however, if the laskars would also be excluded from the soul count, or if they'd specifically be included there? Both options would make sense, but I have feeling the latter might be optimistic; if other documents didn't keep count of the laskars anyway, how could they be included? If that's the case, the phrase may not have been coined specifically to exclude certain people, since that would happen by itself, so to speak. Curiouser and curiouser
    – Flambino
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 20:06

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