Gender Shifts in the History of English

By Anne Curzan | Go to book overview

4 Third-person pronouns in the gender
shift: why is that ship a she?

4.1 Introduction

Contemporary question

The most cited gendered reference to an inanimate object today may be the use of she to refer to ships. This usage was first noted by Ben Jonson in his English Grammar of 1640; he names ships as an exception to the rule that it refers to inanimate objects, for “we say, shee sayles well, though the name be Hercules,or Henry, (or) the Prince” (1972 “1640”: 57). In 2002, it was announced that Lloyd's List, the world's best-known source of maritime business news and information, would stop using she in reference to ships, switching over instead to it. This announcement made headlines in both England and in the United States.

The classical gender hierarchy which historically informed the choice of the generic masculine surfaces in a different form in the discussion of “personification” (the label most often given to use of gendered pronouns for inanimate objects) in grammars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alexander Bain (1879: 122) explains that the masculine is used for things “remarkable for strength, superiority, majesty, sublimity.” Modern grammar books and style guides continue to address the question of using gendered pronouns in reference to inanimate objects, often to standardize such “aberrant” usage. For example, the Associated Press Style Guide and Libel Manual (Goldstein 1998: 96) sets down this guideline for the use of her: “Do not use this pronoun in reference to nations or ships, except in quoted matter. Use it instead.” This guide only addresses feminine references (there is no similar note under him), but in English usage, both masculine and feminine personal pronouns can be used in reference to inanimate nouns. As discussed in Chapter One, it is just these “exceptional” nouns, which seem to flout natural gender concord, that have perplexed descriptive linguists, required notes in grammar books, and created difficulties in defining the nature of the Modern English gender system.

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