Thursday, 31 December 2009


So you know how the two side of a boat are port and starboard? And you know how there's an urban myth that the word "posh" (origins obscure, apparently) originated from boats travelling from England to India, from the idea that the best cabins were "Port Out Starboard Home"?

Okay. Well this myth (and in fact the word "posh" itself) only originates from the late 1800s. So does this mean that "port" was only used to describe the left side of a boat from then onwards, and that there used to be another word for this originally?

In one of those beautiful realisations of how language reshapes and reforms itself, I give you the original, stupid word for port, and you'll see immediately why it was so easily replaced with a different one:

larboard n archaic port Penguin Pocket, 2004

Larboard? Very sensible. Doesn't sound at all similar to / interchangeable with starboard. suggests its origin as 1300–50; ME laddeborde (perh. lit., loading side); later larborde (by analogy with starboard). It also suggests that port's origin as "the left side of a vessel" was in 1570-80. Taking this idea of a loading side/harbour wall side/seaport/port side, it certainly makes sense that "port" took over gradually from "larboard" to be a clearer version of the same thing.

However, the implication as I see it is that between c. 1300 and the late 1500s, our sailors had to spend over 200 years having this kind of conversation:

Captain: Turn to starboard.
1st Mate: Larboard?
Captain: Starboard.
1st Mate: Larboard?
1st Mate: LARBOARD?

Well done the English language. You only had to confuse us for 250 years before we decided it might be prudent to change one of the words.

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