Why is the right side of a ship called “starboard” and the left side called “port”?
Vikings ships were maneuvered with a long board on the right side near the back. The word starboard is derived from “steor” for steering and “bord” for board. This steering board was the rudder that controlled the direction of the ship. Thus, the right side became known as the starboard side.
The Viking long boats were loaded from the left side to prevent damage to the steering paddle located on the right or starboard side. “Lade” or “lar” means load and “bord” means side. Hence the name “larboard” or left side.
But the name starboard and larboard sound much alike and could cause confusion when shouting orders over the wind, weather, and waves. So the British Admiralty demanded that the word port be used in place of larboard. It does make sense, because the boat is loaded while in port and on the port side. The United States Navy officially adopted the term “port” in 1846.
Ships on the seas have greatly enriched our language. A “butt” is a wooden cask holding water and to “scuttle” means to drill a hole or tap a cask. The sailors of old would exchange gossip when they gathered around the “scuttlebutt” for a drink of water.
The French term “m’aidez” means “help me”. This “mayday” call is now the distress call for vessels and people in trouble at sea. It was made official by the International Telecommunications Conference in 1948.
A “clean bill of health” was an official document given to a ship that had left a port in which there was no epidemic or infectious diseases occurring.
Wooden ships had decks made of planks. The space between planks was filled with a packing material called “oakum”, a tarred fiber used for caulking the joints. The joints were sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. These blackened joints left a quite visible series of lines running the length of the ship and were spaced six to eight inches apart.
Most every Sunday, a warship’s crew was ordered to “fall in” or line up in formation at a designated area based on every crewmember’s job. In order to have a neat alignment, sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.
These seams were also used for punishment. The captain might order a naughty young sailor or cabin boy to stand with his toes just touching a designated seam for hours at a time, and not talking to anyone. Older sailors were flogged. Obviously, this “toe the line” was an admonishment to a miscreant that it just might be easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner.