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Re: "she"

Posted by R. Berg on August 09, 2001

In Reply to: Re: "She" posted by Markitos on August 09, 2001

: : : : : Why are certain vessels (boats, automobiles) called she. Why are they known in a feminine way. For example "she is a beauty" when referring to a new car.

: : : : Because you have to treat them like a lady or they will act up and cause havoc.

: : : The concept of gender in English nouns has little use--it gets more of a workout in other languages like Spanish, German and French. where the gender controls the form of the noun depending on the case in which it is used (subject, object, etc.), whether it's plural, etc. Most nouns referring to inanimate objects in English are neutral, in other words, they're "its." For animate creatures, unless the sex is known, the default gender tends to be female (as in, "Nice fish you caught there, Earl," "Yep, she's a beauty.") Cars, boats, and musical instruments have a liminal quality as objects that causes us to engender them female (perhaps for reasons that would sound atavistically sexist if argued--see last follow-up)....Note that this convention has been transgressed in the case of hurricanes (which are now proportionately himacanes)....

: : Who you callin' atavistically sexist? With the "vessel" business, I had in mind that the size and function of a ship might subliminally remind men of their experiences as small boys, when mamma was a large, imposing, enclosing (with arms) figure who carried them around. Really. Without some such intuitive understanding, we have a hard time explaining why people say "the mother ship."

: : Why are musical instruments in this category? --rb

: No offense intended, R.B., I was assuming folks who could get offended by getting called atavistically sexist wouldn't know what it meant! (And actually, I was referring to the association of "ladies" and "act up" and "havoc.") I'm not saying such opinions are right or wrong, but the time when they proceeded unquestioned has sadly passed. Again, no offense intended....I would think the term "mother ship" derives from the spawning of packs of whelps that cluster around their dams like long boats about the Pequod....Even little skiffs and scows are female gendered (it's sounding a lot like parthenogenesis to me!)...I guess instruments are female gendered because they aren't merely inanimate objects, they incite aroused emotional states, they have voices that are intensely expressive, for these and probably other reasons they linguistically partake of the status of animate objects--for whom the default in English is feminine gender. Is there perhaps an expert out there?

No offense taken (that was easy once I learned you weren't talking about me). I'm waiting for a call back from my friend the cognitive linguist. Meanwhile, here's what the books say:

From "The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea":
"SHIP, from the Old English 'scip,' the generic name for sea-going vessels, as opposed to boats, originally personified as masculine but by the 16th century almost universally expressed as feminine. . . ."

From "The Oxford Companion to the English Language":
"GENDER . . . 'She/her' is widely used to refer to a ship or other means of transport ('She runs well before the wind'), to a country ('England will never forget those who gave up their lives for her'), and sometimes to machines ('She sounds rough; maybe the engine needs tuning'). . . ."
The entry for gender says nothing about musical instruments.

Another example, from song: "She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes" (a train).

If mus. instruments are considered feminine because they arouse strong emotions, the default point of view must be masculine (and heterosexual)--but we already knew that it is, didn't we? Actually, I'm not sure the femininity of mus. instruments is established. I once read about musicians' difficulty in getting large instruments to concerts undamaged. One bassist said that when he flew, he always reserved a second seat in the name of Mr. B. Fiddle.