What gender is the royal yacht? There seems to be some doubt on this point. The Times thinks it's a girl, while the Telegraph and the Independent both make it neuter. The Mail can't make up its mind; last month the vessel was an it, last week it was a she. Nor can the Mirror. A state of flux prevails. But I imagine not for long. An age which is reluctant to identify the sex of chairpersons and firefighters can't be expected to make an exception for ships. It's not surprising that the Times clings to the time-honoured form, for Times reporters are still trying to write in a dignified, old-world style, a sort of Clubman's English. But even they have given up calling countries "she". Next time the Queen has a launching to do perhaps she'll be asked to say "God bless this ship and all who sail in it", which sounds wrong, but its the way the tide is flowing.

If there's some logic here, there seems to have been rather less in the convention that made machinery feminine in the first place. Was it the feeling that machinery was unpredictable, which was what chauvinistic men too often thought of women? Or that it was wonderful and mysterious, even loveable? ('The old girl's going well today", as motorists used to say.) I prefer the latter explanation. The 17th century musketeer called his firearm "her" because he cherished it, not because he thought little of it. The good things of life - love, beauty, wisdom - were always personified as female. In the ancient world they were goddesses.

I'm rather sorry ships are being neutered, but at least it gets rid of a bit of awkward grammar. "The liner, which broke her moorings..." Shouldn't it be "who"? Well, no. The fact is that we've forgotten why ships are feminine; we've stopped thinking of them like that, just as we no longer call the sun "he".

Comments