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Where Did the Terms Starboard and Port Come From?

Today, we call the right side of a ship or boat the starboard side and the other side is the port side. These terms have been in use for a very long time. This is a case of the words being very logical, though.

The ancient sailors had boats that were steered with a rudder, much like many modern ships do. The control for that rudder was located on the right side of the ship. The apparatus that controlled the rudder is the tiller, and this was secured to the wood on that side of the craft. In order to steer the boat, a sailor would walk to the steer-board in order to control the till. Starboard is a corruption of steer-board. (Think of saying ‘steer-board’ with a pirate voice.)

That explains starboard, but what about port for the left side? Since the rudder and till were located on the steer-board (starboard) side of the ship, when a ship docked, the ship had to dock on the left side. If it didn’t, there was a likelihood of the till and rudder getting damaged. That means that when a ship came into port, they approached and tied off the left side of the ship to the dock, so this logically was the port side of the ship.

It is all quite logical and it had to do with steering the boat.


What do you think?

Written by Rex Trulove


  1. I probably knew these meanings from being in the Sea Scouts in my extreme youth!

    However, the idea that the word posh came from “port out, starboard home” is a myth that was believed for many years but has no basis in truth.

    • There are several possibilities in regard to the origin of ‘posh’, but none of them are proven. Like so many words, the actual origin is lost in antiquity. That is even true of words that haven’t been in existence for long.

  2. I seem to recall having been made to learn this in grade school and at that time it was such a bore, but you have made it interesting. See, now it all makes sense.

    • It is really cool that you were taught this in school. I wasn’t and learned about it somewhat later. It does make a lot of sense, though, and it also explains why ships at dock all point the same direction, even today. With most modern ships, the rudder and tiller assembly is located amidships, rather than on one side or the other.

        • That would/could be useful information, though. My grandparents on my mother’s side had eight kids; five boys and three girls. The girls were all taught to hunt, how to field-clean a deer, how to cut and wrap a deer, how to track, and so forth, in addition to what girls are “normally” taught. The boys were taught how to sew, cook, etc, besides what boys are normally taught.

          They were taught that at home rather than school, but the result was that there wasn’t a great deal that they couldn’t do, regardless of their gender. To the day she died, I never met a man who was a better hunter than my mother was and she was an expert at fly fishing. Both of those things are traditionally thought of as a guy-thing. All of my uncles were excellent cooks. My generation was taught the same things, regardless of gender.

          I know a number of women who are far better auto mechanics than I am, too. lol