Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 30, 2020

Etymology in the News: “Ship”

As we hunker down — isolated, quarantined — ’round the world, I’ve recently looked at a number of words we’re using to describe our current circumstances.

This week, the U. S. Military Sealift Command dispatched two hospital ships — “Mercy” and “Comfort” — to provide medical support to the cities of New York and Los Angeles.

Here’s United States Naval Ship Mercy, berthing at what is ordinarily a cruise ship terminal in the Port of Los Angeles.

Mercy docks Brad Nixon 8211 680

854 feet long, 106 feet wide, Mercy has 1,000 hospital beds, 12 operating rooms and nearly 1,300 medical staff and crew aboard. Her almost-identical sister ship, Comfort, is bound for New York. Not nearly the solution for all the resources those cities need, but welcome.

Where — those etymologically inclined ask — do we get the word “ship?”

It’s an old word. It shows up in King Alfred’s translations of the Bible from the 800s, as well as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from Alfred’s reign, not to mention that old tale, Beowulf, from the 10th century.

In the oldest citation I’ve ever seen in the Oxford English Dictionary, it appeared in something called the Corpus Glossary, one of the very oldest manuscripts in English, in about 785. A form of what we call a “dictionary” — a word that wasn’t coined until centuries later — The Corpus cited English equivalents for Latin words, including “ship” (Latin: navis).

Before that, the word — obviously essential to seafarers like the Anglo Saxons and their Viking forbears — hearkens back to prehistoric Gothic, before anyone bothered to develop writing so we could have a record of this stuff.

In other words, so long as we’ve been speaking English, we’ve had the word “ship,” although we spelled it differently 1,000 years ago (as we were wont to do).

Back then, scribes had the idea that the “sh” sound should be spelled “sc” (thank the ancient Goths or Teutons for that), so all those early ship references referred to a thing called a scip. It’s the same word. Pronounced precisely the same way as we say it now: “ship.”

Oh, Ms. Cabezaloco, sitting there in the back of the room, I see your hand is up.

If you’re about to ask if there’s any relation to the word “skiff,” that initial “sh” did shift to a hard glottal stop. Along the way, if you were paying attention during our last class, a prehistoric unvoiced plosive “p” consonant shifted to an unvoiced labio-dental fricative, yielding an “f” sound. Giving us “skiff.”

A related derivation yields the commander of a ship: a skipper.

Any other questions?

The quality of Mercy, we trust, is not strained.

Mercy and crew, welcome to L.A. Here, she sails into the harbor as the sun rises.

USNS Mercy Brad Nixon 8175 680

For more pictures and descriptions of the arrival of USNS Mercy, go to My Eclectic Cafe and the article, “U.S. Hospital Ship Mercy Arrives at the Port of LA.”

© Brad Nixon 2020. Etymology courtesy A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J.R Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971.


  1. After spending a few seconds pondering the possibility that the phrase ‘naval ship’ might be a redundancy, it occurred to me that there’s another course to chart in this etymological journey. Navis also is the basis for calling the primary interior space of a church the ‘nave.’ In a previous lifetime, I served at Christ the King Lutheran in Houston, and there’s a neat article here about ‘ship’ as a metaphor for church, and the Swedish tradition that puts actual ships inside naves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Simply on my heels here.
      I’ve been in any number of naves. Some number of times, I’ve actually been thinking about the words one uses to describe the structure of a church.
      This one had never occurred to me. You are, of course, absolutely correct. Thank you.
      Then, in a moment, I got the image of Orson Welles portraying the fiery Father Mapple in the 1956 version of “Moby Dick.”
      Evoking the flames of Hell — “HOT-ter than any FIIIRRRE!” — from a pulpit literally built of the prow of a ship.
      Wordpress won’t allow me to copy a photo, but here’s a link to a site that has a shot:
      Sail on!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “unvoiced labio-dental fricative”….. I love it when you talk dirty! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is, actually — although I can’t prove it — a B side of an Eric Clapton 45 RPM record I once owned, titled “Labio-Dental Fricative.” I found it, EC with Vivian Stanshall, but this isn’t the pressing I had. You can clearly hear the hand of the master on this. No extra charge:


  3. […] Mercy docking at its berth at the Port of LA and Mercy sailing into the port, copyright Brad Nixon 2020, used with kind permission. Etymology lovers, see his related post here.  […]


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