port / larboard / starboard

Port, larboard, and starboard are nautical terms of direction referring to the left (port, larboard) and right (starboard) of a ship as one faces the bow. The oldest of these terms is starboard.

Starboard has a simple and straightforward, if not particularly obvious to the modern speaker, origin. It comes from Old English stéorbord and is a combination of stéor, meaning steer, and bord, meaning the side of a ship or boat (also found in the modern overboard). On old ships the rudder or steering paddle would be on the right side of the ship. Hence the term.

Starboard is found as early as c.893 when it appears in Alfred’s translation of Orosius:

Let him ealne weg þæt weste land on ðæt steorbord, & þa widsæ on ðæt bæcbord þrie dagas.
(Let him keep the west land on the starbaord, & the ocean on the left for three days.)

This quotation also shows us the word bæcbord, or backboard, which was the Old English antonym for stéorbord. It was so called because the helmsman kept his back to the left-hand side of the ship. Bæcbord did not survive the transition into Middle English.

Instead, bæcbord was replaced by laddeborde, or larboard. This comes from ladde and bord. The origin of ladde is not known. Many believe it to be a form of the verb to lade. From the poem Patience written perhaps c.1380:

Þay layden in on laddeborde & þe lofe wynnes.
(They lay on the larboard & the spars strained.)

By the 16th century, laddebord had undergone the consonant change to become larboard, probably under the influence of its mate starboard.

But this similarity contained a problem. The two words were easily confused. It would not do for a shouted command to be misinterpreted, so a different word was required. The term port for the left-hand side of a ship dates to the 16th century, but it was not until the 1840s that both the Royal and US Navies officially abandoned the term larboard in favor of port. From a High Court of Admiralty Examination from 1543-44:

The sayd [ship] mighte have layed his helme a porte.

Why port was chosen is not known for certain, but most believe, like in larboard, it is because the left-hand side of a ship was the side typically put next to the wharf. The word port could either refer to a harbor, or it can refer to the sense meaning a gate, after a passage cut into the side of the ship for the passage of people and cargo. If it is the first, the word comes from the Latin portus, meaning harbor. If the latter, it is from the Latin porta, meaning gate.

The name of the wine derives from the city of Oporto (literally, the port) in Portugal.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd (starboard, larboard) & 3rd (port) Editions)

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