A friend suggested I write a column about the origins of the terms “port” and “starboard.” So I did some research—on the internet, of course, to assure absolute accuracy—and found plenty of information from some expert nautical etymologists. Whatever those are.
There’s no need for confusion. See, port is to the … um, left side of the boat, right? No, your other left. Facing forward. That’s right. So if left is port, reason dictates that the right side of the boat must be starboard, because that’s what’s left. Remember, however, that the “right side” of a boat does not necessarily mean the correct side, especially as it applies to pulling into port, when the right side is totally wrong. Thus ends the confusion.
In days of old when one of the salty sailors was high above the deck in the crow’s nest facing forward, left and right might have been referred to simply as left and right.
But the captain down on the poop deck preparing lunch for the crew—perhaps marinated shish kebob with just a hint of chipotle and a nice Caesar salad—might have been facing aft in order to monitor the gas grill. So his left could well have been someone else’s “other left.” Can you imagine the pandemonium? It was crucial to accurately refer to one side of the boat or the other without regard to stem or stern (which is a whole ‘nother discussion).
Way back when boats were invented, ships were commonly steered with a sweeping board or oversized paddle mounted on the right side of the vessel. In Olde English it was referred to as a “steorbord,” literally a “steering board.” Phonetically, it was a short hop from steorbord to “starboard.” Without getting into nautical engineering issues, I hope the genius who finally thought of putting the rudder in the back of the ship where it belongs was awarded an extra ration of grog.
We got to the term “port” from a whole different direction. Logically, I surmised that “port” referred to the side of the ship over which certain Portuguese sherries were smuggled aboard, but this turns out to be incorrect. I did post my theory to Wikipedia, however, in case someone finds that information useful.
While starboard was the side of the ship from which it was steered, the other side was referred to as “larboard.” The left side, of course, was the right side for the port. If you’ve been paying attention, you recall there were rudders mounted on the right side, so that left the larboard side as the right side for docking. See how easy this is? Literally, “larboard” means … oops. Apparently no one knows. Not even Google.
Etymology and pure conjecture have it that “lar” was an Olde English word for “lade,” or “load,” so “larboard” referred to the side of the ship from which cargo was taken in—cases of sherry or anything else. That would be the side without the rudder, of course, the right side of the ship to be up against the port—the left side. Clear?
Voila, we have now accounted for “starboard and larboard.” But the story doesn’t end there, thankfully, or I wouldn’t have enough material to fill this space.
Now imagine a fierce battle between great sailing ships, with cannon exploding and sailors yelling. Over the howling wind, the skipper orders a strategic maneuver. “Hard to … arboard! Step lively, lads!”
“Huh?” the first mate asks, “Did he say starboard or larboard? I couldn’t tell with all this racket.”
“Me either,” the coxswain shrugs, “Let’s go with larboard, there’s a 50/50 chance that’s right.”
“No, no, I’m certain that’s left,” the first mate argues with authority, as the ship is rammed from behind and sinks ignominiously to the bottom.
It was clear that “larboard” sounded too much like “starboard.” The similarity was costing battles and sinking ships. So someone—perhaps the same guy who had that Eureka! moment about putting the stupid rudder in the back of the stupid boat—came up with the bright idea of calling the left side of the ship where the port lies the “port” side. And that seemed right to everyone.
So now we have port and starboard, and it doesn’t matter which direction we’re facing, the terms are always accurate. We never again have to ask, “Your starboard, or mine?” All we have to remember is that starboard is right and port is left. Right?
I’ve also found it helpful that “port” and “left” each have four letters. Some little kid at the dock taught me that.
Until Next time,
My best from the Stern,
Ted A. Thompson