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Saturday, 15 October 2011

Starboard and Larboard

Nowadays we talk about Port and Starboard, but Larboard is the older term for Port and was certainly used at the time of Nelson’s navy. The change to the word Port came in the middle of the 19th century.
So where do these odd terms come from?

Starboard is easy; it is merely a corruption of ‘steerboard’.  Early ships were steered by a rudder that was like a whopping great oar over the side – the steerboard side – which was the other side to that customarily brought alongside a dock.  Docking onto the rudder could of course break it; and there were reasons the other side was laid against a staithe. The side to place the steerboard was a decision based on the fact that the majority of the population are right handed, and to have it on the right was more convenient.

The move to a central rudder or centreboard began in the 13th Century; the earliest depiction of a ship with a central rudder board is on the Great Seal of Ipswich, which is extremely early since King John presented the Charter to the town in 1200. This innovation meant that ships could be built larger and were more manoeuvrable

So why Larboard?
This is a bit more of a corruption than its counterpart, coming from the old word ‘laddebord’ or ‘load side’. The word corrupted to rhyme with starboard because it doubtless seemed more logical to sailors once the old word had become obsolete.  Ships had a large loading port on this side which would be the side presented to any dockside when dockside was present.  It was not uncommon to heel a ship over in the mud at low tide to load it, a doubtless smelly and messy business carrying goods across tidal mud. 
The ‘Kraek’ picture of a carrack shows the loading port quite clearly.

Oh, why port? Because it has the loading port in it.  The reason for changing the name was probably something to do with how easy Starboard and Larboard are to get mixed up when listening to orders in a howling gale.

Note the old word ‘bord’ for ‘side’ persists in naval and boating terminology in such words as ‘inboard’ to bring something inside as it were, and the ‘outboard’ or external motor. The etymology of the word gives us the word ‘border’ as well, a delineating region.  There is no relation to the word that gave us board, a plank, table and other words deriving thereof.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the clearest explanations of the geography of a ship this reader has ever been exposed to.

    Thanks so much to the author for writing this,