Posted by Markitos on August 09, 2001

In Reply to: "She" posted by R. Berg 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?