Friday, August 12, 2016

Starboard and Port

Bob from Traverse City asked about the nautical terms starboard and port—specifically, he wondered why sailors don’t simply use the words right and left.

Right and left are relative terms; they depend on the direction you are facing. Traditionally, if you are at the back of a boat looking forward, starboard is to your right, and port is on your left, and those words are maintained no matter which direction you are subsequently facing. Otherwise, we’d have a confused and frantic last-second discussion: “do you mean my right or your right?!”

As to why those particular words are used, there are historical reasons. In early Germanic boats, the rudder was not centered in the back of the vessel as it is today. Rather, it was a steering oar attached to the right side (because right-handed helmsmen were statistically predominant—90%). Board meant the side of a boat, and star was actually a variation of a Germanic/Dutch word that meant steering. So starboard translates as the steering side.

Port was a late addition to naval vocabulary. Earlier, the term was larboard—the loading side. You couldn’t load on the starboard side because the rudder was in the way and might be damaged. In port, you would dock with the left side of the boat facing the pier or the shoreline.

Since larboard could be mistaken for starboard in stormy conditions, the Latin term portus (port, harbor, passageway) was eventually substituted. The British Navy made it official in 1844.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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