Are Ships, Cars, and Nations Always Called 'She'?

Nobody knows why people started calling ships "she." Old English nouns had genders, but experts don't think this is the reason for ships being treated as female.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read


What about cars? The old PBS radio show “Car Talk,” hosted by two brothers who gave advice to car owners, addressed the topic of giving names to cars. One episode featured a listener whose used truck was called “Mark,” prompting the hosts to ask, “Does a car deserve a name? And if so, should it be male, or female? And, come to think of it… do people who name their cars actually take better care of them?” Their conclusion was that “cars, as soulless mechanical devices, hardly merited names.” 

Many people disagree and do name their vehicles, but not all the names are female. There is even a spot on a baby-naming site for popular names that people give to cars. Bertha and Fred lead the pack. It seems that people, especially those in the millennial generation, can become attached to their cars. According to an article in "Fortune" magazine, “Nearly 40% of millennials name their cars, compared to only 25% for all age groups.” 


Now we’ll move on to countries. Nations are often referred to as female, but some cultures favor the idea that their homelands are male. Either the word “motherland" or “fatherland” applies, depending on which country you are discussing. You will hear Mother Russia, not Father Russia. On the other hand, people in Germany and Scandinavia refer to the fatherland, not the motherland. As for America, the personification of the United States is usually “Uncle Sam.” This term for the U.S. was coined around the War of 1812 and became popular as a slogan on a poster during World War I. The poster features Sam pointing and saying, “I want YOU for U.S. Army.”

The United States as the woman Columbia

But did you know that United States used to be “female”? Her name was Columbia, as in the District of Columbia, part of the name of the capital, Washington, D.C. Her name appears elsewhere, in places such as Columbia Pictures, Columbia Records, and Columbia University. An interesting article in “The Atlantic” states, “America was Columbia in the same way that England was Britannia and France was Marianne.” The name Columbia fell out of favor about 100 years ago, when Sam became more popular, but the lyrics to the Irving Berlin song “God Bless America,” written in 1918, have immortalized the femininity of the United States: “Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above.”


If you name your boat or car, let us know what she or he is called! As for those interested in grammar, we will continue driving our grammarmobiles, which may or may not be female.


1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 1602.

That segment was written by Bonnie Mills, author of "The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier" who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.

Ship image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Columbia image via Wikimedia Commons.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.