When I was a child, there was a sport called rowing; if four or more people rowed together in the same boat, they would be known as a crew. At some point, either before or during my childhood, the sport itself began to be known by the name crew.

To my great horror, when I went to college, I began to hear people speaking about the crew team, as in, "my roommate is thinking about joining the crew team."

When did "crew" become the name for the sport? I looked in my trusty (but somewhat dated) compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which did not shed any light on the matter, as this sense of the word "crew" was not to be found.

More to the point, when did people start using "crew team"? I did not find this phrase at all in the OED, nor did I expect to.

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    @DanD. I do not see the answer to either of my questions on either of those pages.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 5:37
  • Well, I only saw that the first page had "In the United States, high school and collegiate rowing is sometimes referred to as crew.[2]" where in the second page gave definitions "a. A team of rowers, as of a racing shell. b. The sport of rowing.". Clearly that doesn't answer your question.
    – Dan D.
    Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 5:44
  • Is "crew team" really redundant? A "crew" is a set of rowers, and sometimes a coxswain, who row one boat. The "crew team" at a school is made up of several crews. In the U.S., this generally seems to have been called the crew squad or rowing squad before 1950, and the crew team or rowing team since (see Ngram). In the U.K., it was called the rowing team post 1950, but I don't know what it was called before then. Commented May 2, 2012 at 15:18
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    @PeterShor Hm, thanks for that comment; I feel much better now. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that line of reasoning, but it's reasonable enough that I am no longer quite as horrified. I was prompted to post this question when I heard Cole Porter's "Crew Song" recently ("I want to row on the crew, Mama"). I think I would be more likely to say "my roommate is thinking about joining the rowing crew" or "... about joining the crew" or more likely "... about rowing crew" -- if not for the fact that I do not have a roommate.
    – phoog
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 16:09
  • @phoog: I do think that is the origin of the redundant-sounding "crew team". On the other hand, I think that if people used "crew" both for "boat crew" and "crew team", context would usually take care of any ambiguity (and in fact, I suspect this is how the sport got to be called "crew" in the U.S. in the first place). Commented May 3, 2012 at 14:45

2 Answers 2


In colleges, the term "crew" for the sport of rowing has been used in the United States for over a hundred years. Here is a 1914 reference to "went out for crew", and Here is a Google Books reference from 1898 where the sport itself is called "boat-racing" but where "was on the crew" is used to mean that you participated in it. In my experience in the U.S., for at least the last 40 years "crew" has been a considerably more common term for the sport than "rowing". Finally, here is a 1911 record book from Syracuse university containing the dreadfully redundant phrase "The 'Varsity crew team began practice" (which phrase seems to not have become common until much later).

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    Thanks for your answer. I don't quite see that the 1898 reference uses "crew" for the sport, but the 1914 reference clearly does. Thanks especially for the 1911 citation for "the varsity crew team".
    – phoog
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 16:11
  • Hm, I just looked at the link for the 1911 example, and I had not noticed the apostrophe in "'Varsity". Interesting.
    – phoog
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 16:23
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    'Varsity is short for Univarsity, where the vowel has undergone the same sound change as in sergeant and the British pronunciation of Berkeley and clerk. Commented May 2, 2012 at 20:17

I'm going to guess that you went to college sometime in the 1980s, or early 1990s, as that's when the term started to grow into common use, much to your "great horror."

The Google Ngram shows the seemingly-redundant 2-word term gaining momentum in the 1970s, and then increasing rather sharply in the 1980s. However, a bulk of the earlier occurrences of the phrase are referring to a small team of individuals working together outside of a rowboat, such as a team of factory workers, an aircraft crew, or a maintenance team. Still, a few references to the "crew team" – that is, the rowing team – stretch back into the 1970s, such as this one, in the wake of the 1970 Kent State tragedy:

Later in the week, members of the crew team rowed wearing black armbands, and some members of the track team also wore them while competing.

or this one, from a 1977 magazine:

Lind took up rowing at California State University, Long Beach when her then-boyfriend went out for the crew team.

1980s references to "the crew team" abound, and are too numerous to list here.

Perhaps the most interesting occurrence I found was from a Stanford photographic history album, which had a picture of the "1916 Crew Team." The book was published in 1989, though, so that verbiage may be part of a modern caption, and perhaps those 1916 rowers would have been as horrified to hear that terminology as you were.

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    This does appear to be an Americanism. The British English Ngram is rather different.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 9:49
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    I think the OP was asking about the term 'crew' as opposed to rowing, not as opposed to 'crew team'. Do you have any evidence for 'rowing'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 17:12
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    Hmmm...rereading it looks like he's asking for both 'crew' and 'crew team'. The latter is easier to see through ngrams (the bigram is much more specific, less likely to have other unrelated meanings). 'crew' and 'rowing' have so many other contexts that the water racing sport meaning is washed out in the ngram graph.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 17:47
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    @Mitch: You're right, the Ngram is going to be of limited use here. That's why I only did one Ngram (for "crew team"), and then I sifted through several pages of the results before formulating my answer.
    – J.R.
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 23:36
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    @Mitch To rephrase my 2-part question: (1) When did the term "crew" begin to be used for the name of the sport that was earlier known as "rowing"?; (2) When did a group of rowers begin to be known as a "crew team" rather than just a "crew"?
    – phoog
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 16:18

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