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Nautical terminology is full of wonderful history and detail.  It reflects the nature of people to be reasonable when they come to naming things.  Much nautical terminology, especially that from the days of sail, seems mysterious because in today's world we have no referents to make it familiar.

Take the concept of a board.  To us, it is a thing you buy at excessive price in a home warehouse store.  In the case of our story, it goes all the way back to the Vikings.  To them, boards were what they built ships of.  The common usage of “board” by the Vikings referred to the side of a ship.  You boarded a ship by crossing it's side.  This directly relates to today's terminology of inboard and outboard motors on boats.

If you are on a ship (inboard) and you fall into the water (outboard), you have fallen overboard.  See?  Entirely reasonable.  Nothing strange there.  But!  What about the directional references on a ship: port (to the left) and starboard (to the right)?  Well you can probably deduce now that starboard (right) refers to the right side of the ship.  What is the star thing?  Well, it turns out that the Vikings (who started this whole thing, see the previous paragraph) steered their ships using an oar that they called the “star” that they always fastened to the right side of their ships.  Thus they referred to the right side of their ships as the “starboard” side.

Since they put their steering oars on the right side of their ships, the Vikings had to tie the opposite side to the dock to prevent damaging their steering system.  The left side of the ship became known as the loading side or “larboard” side.  Later, it was decided that "larboard" and "starboard" were too similar, especially when trying to be heard over the roar of a heavy sea, so the phrase became the "side at which you tied up to in port" or the "port" side.

See?  Everything is understandable ... and you didn't even know you cared.

Posted on Thursday, March 25, 2004 6:39 PM Day Job , & Etc. | Back to top


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