According to Wikipedia, this site, and etymonline, third-rate derives from a term related to ships, particularly a rating system in the British Royal Navy.

However, etymonline dates the term to 1814, while this site cites Wikipedia, and Wikipedia attributes the term first to "the 1720s," but later describes the rating system as originating in 1620.

But the earliest actual citation I can find is in the OED, which gives no explanation of the contextual development of the phrase, but provides a date earlier than etymonline with a context to which I am unsure the British Royal Navy relates, because the publication is about housing and land.

third rate n.

1656 H. Phillippes Purchasers Pattern (1676) A iv b An house of the third rate.

This citation is all that is given for the compound "third-rate" in the online edition of the OED, there is no definition provided or additional notes.

Does the OED's declination to attribute the term to shipping in combination with a lack of citations related to shipping that antedate the citation related to housing and land indicate that the direct connection to the British Royal Navy is dubious?

Is there evidence that "third-rate" referred to ships before it referred to houses, as Wikipedia claims without in-line citations, while providing no cited texts using the term? Or are there other reputable sources that establish the validity of the British Royal Navy connection -- particularly sources that might help explain the OED's lonely attestation?

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    WP entries need not always be backed by citations. OED does a meticulous search.
    – Kris
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 12:42
  • What are "nautical ships"?
    – Kris
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 12:44
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    @Kris I suppose I meant as opposed to spaceships. :) Or any other thing that could be termed a "ship." I have a tendency to be specific when I'm unsure if I'm being clear. Title edited. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 12:46
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    If this is true :*In 1626, a table drawn up by Charles I used the term rates for the first time in a classification scheme connected with the Navy. The table specified the amount of monthly wages a seaman or officer would earn, in an ordered scheme of six rates, from "first-rate" to "sixth-rate"* en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rating_system_of_the_Royal_Navy - it appears that OED citation is an early, idiomatic one, outside the shipping system.
    – user 66974
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 12:53
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    This sounds like a tax rate reference. For instance, the window tax had three levels - < 10 windows, 10 - 20 windows, and >20 windows. It could just be a way of saying the house had less than 10 windows. (note, just an example, the window tax was a bit later on.)
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 12:56

3 Answers 3


As mentioned by Steve B in another answer, OED attests the derivation of 'third-rate' (adjective) from a primary source that refers to a British ship in 1649. The same 1649 quote attests the use of 'rate' in the nautical sense III.12.b.:

Any of various classes into which vessels are divided, according (variously, at different times) to the seniority of the captain, the number of guns carried (cf. quot. 1769), complement of crew, or size. Now hist.
Often preceded by an ordinal numeral: cf. first rate n. 1a, second-rate adj., etc.

No earlier attestation is given for 'first rate', 'second rate', etc.

OED is, however, somewhat constrained by its editorial policy regarding the types of sources acceptable; also, the OED selection of attesting quotes is constrained by the necessity of brevity as well as the OED focus on lexical rather than general historicity.

Thus, with regard to lexical historicity, secondary source attestation of the nautical origin of 'third-rate' is available at least as early as February of 1638, in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles I, 1637-1638, which was edited and published in 1869:

The Convertive, formerly of the second rate, is of late fallen down to the third rate, and has no more allowance of cordage than ships of the third rate.

The rating system "appears for the first time...in 1626", and did not, at the time, "mark any distinction in the force or construction of the ships", at least according to the source cited and excerpted by Wikipedia, W.H. Davenport Adams' 1885 England on the Sea; or, The Story of the British Navy, Its Decisive Battles and Great Commanders. Adams also mentioned the 1626 origin of the rating system in his 1863 Famous Ships of the British Navy.


rate etymonline

First-rate, second-rate, etc. are 1640. From British Navy division of ships into six classes based on size and strength.

and of third: etymonline

Third-rate "of poor quality" is from 1814, ultimately from classification of ships (1640s)

Evidence to suggest yes, related to the Br Navy. 3rd rate meaning 3 decks of cannon.

1st, 2nd, and 3rd class ships 1728

wiki file and earlier: Henry Grace à Dieu 1514 wikipedia

Henry Grace à Dieu was one of the first vessels to feature gunports and had twenty of the new heavy bronze cannon, allowing for a broadside.

Great Henry

  • I saw that picture, could you find the date it was printed?
    – user 66974
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 13:34
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    @RaceYouAnytime - try this link: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rating_system_of_the_Royal_Navy#/media/…
    – user 66974
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 13:49
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    1728 - added ref to orig .jpg.
    – lbf
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 13:51
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    Is there any justification for everyone not agreeing with this? I wonder what this phenomenon is called. I see it all the time in online forums. Good find by the way.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:08
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    @user070221 Agreeing with what is an excellent answer.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:30

Citation from The Compact Edition of the OED (1971) under third-rate.

1649, Cromwell Let. 4 Nov. in Carlyle. The Garland, one of your third-rate ships, coming happily into Waterford Bay.

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