Where Port And Starboard Comes From

Where Port And Starboard Comes From

Boats have been around for a hell of a long time. The oldest boat discovered is a 10,000 year old plank of wood with its insides carved out, thought to have been commanded by a hunter gatherer living in modern day Holland. Fast forward to today, and boats have a rich and complicated history, having been developed independently by various empires, with delicate nuance between them.

After having played such a long role in human history, boating is filled with quirky and confusing terms like flotsam and jetsam, Dutch courage, scuttlebutts, square meals, and one of the most confused terms in the vocabulary: port and starboard.

So, where exactly did port and starboard come from? And why on earth didn’t they just use left and right?

The terms “port and starboard” evolved in England, when boats were controlled using steering oars rather than rudders. With most sailors being right-handed, their oars were placed through the right-hand side of the boat, which they called the “steering side.” But “steering side” isn’t particularly catchy, and everything important eventually gets its own name, so the sailors combined the Old English words stéor (steer) and bord (side of boat) to create steorbord. This is similar to the German Steuerbord and Dutch stuurboord, which also translates to “steer board,” and probably had an influence on the English naming. As the Old English steorbord evolved with New English, the word eventually became starboard—the right hand side of the boat.

Boats grew bigger with technology improvements, as did the steering oars. With the paddle of the oar being its biggest part, and the boat still being steered from the right hand side, the easiest way to tie the boat to a dock was on the left. This meant that boats were loaded from the left hand side, and as a result, became known as the Old English term “larboard” (the loading side). As you can tell, larboard and starboard sound almost identical, so to avoid confusion, the sailors decided to use “port” instead—the direction of the port, which is on the left hand side of the boat. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the usage of port in 1543, although it’s unclear when exactly starboard came into existence.

So why didn’t the sailors just avoid the confusion, and use the words left and right? Well, imagine a crew full of salty sea dogs cutting through the southern Atlantic in search of whales. All of them have their respective jobs on the ships, constantly shifting and turning about as they work. Suddenly, from the dizzying heights of the crow’s nest comes a shout: “whale to the left!” and every crew member looks to his left to catch a glimpse of the lucrative beast. With everyone facing a different direction on the ship, the crew have no way of telling exactly where the whale is, and in the confusion that follows, the whale quickly dives and makes its escape, leaving the crew members grumbling in their luck.

With port and starboard as clear directional points on the ship, no such confusion arises.

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