The Origin of “Port” and “Starboard”

Daven Hiskey 17
shipToday I found out how “port” and “starboard” became the commonly used terms for “left” (port) and “right” (starboard) on a ship.

We’ve all been there.  You step on a ship and everything suddenly becomes nautical, despite the fact that most on the boat probably have to resort to mnemonics to remember which side of the ship is port and which side is starboard- usually translating port/starboard to left/right and then mentally orienting oneself to which side of the ship that would be if facing the front of the boat. When around landlubbers, this sort of mental gymnastics could be rendered much simpler by saying the universally understood “left/right side of the boat”.

Of course, in emergency situations, it can be potentially hazardous for someone to get turned around and use their left instead of the boat’s left or the like.  This is supposedly the reason why terms like “port” and “starboard”, referring to one side of the ship or other, were originally used. Although, in the early days, seamen needn’t have thought of it as the “left or right” side of the boat- “starboard” referred to a very visible and prominent feature of the boat itself, so no chance of confusion.

A recreation of a Galilian boat with a starboard tiller

A re-creation of a Galilean boat with a starboard tiller

Specifically, “starboard” is referencing the old practice of having a steering oar on one side of the ship, rather than a centrally placed rudder.  This was basically just a modified oar generally attached in a vertical attitude to the right side of the ship near the back (with the right side thought to have been chosen simply because most people are right handed).

As to the name itself, “starboard”, this comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for this side steering oar, “steorbord”, which literally means “the side on which a vessel is steered”.  The fact that the rudder was oriented this way gave a very convenient and completely unconfusing word for sailors, without any mental gymnastics, to know which side of the ship was being referenced; it’s just the side the steering oar is on.

The original name for the left side of the ship was not “port”, but rather the Old English “bæcbord”.  This was probably referencing the fact that on larger boats the helmsman would often have to hold the steering oar with both hands, so his back would be to the left side of the ship.

After “bæcbord” came “laddebord”- “laden” meaning “to load” and “board” meaning “ship’s side”, referencing the side of the ship where loading and unloading was done.  This gave rise to “larboard” in the 16th century, rhyming with “starboard”, and again just meaning the side of the ship that faced the dock or shore (to minimize chance of damaging the steering oar and make it easier to load and unload without the steering oar in the way).

“Port” also popped up in the 16th century with the origin similar to why the left side of the ship was called “larboard”, when you docked or moored a ship with the rudder affixed to the right side, it was always done with the left side of the boat facing the harbor or dock.

Presumably the fact that “port” and “larboard” first popped up around the 16th century is no coincidence.  Once “laddebord” was slurred down to “larboard”, to rhyme with “starboard”, a problem was introduced with the words sounding so similar. There was now a good chance of people mishearing which direction was given, particularly in stormy settings or in a battle or the like.  As such, around the early to mid-19th century, “port” popularly replaced “larboard” for this reason. At first many just made the switch on their own, but by 1844 the change from “larboard” to “port” was made official in the British navy and two years later in the U.S. Navy and has pretty much become ubiquitous since.

Bonus Facts:

  • Somewhat confusingly (depending on your frame of reference), on many boats until the 1930s when someone said something like “hard to starboard” or the like, the helmsmen would understand that to mean to turn the ship to the left (port), rather than starboard.  Why?  Because for a time the standard was to go by the tiller direction (or the bottom of the wheel if there was one) rather than the way the ship will go.  Thus, if you want the ship to turn to port, you’d move the tiller to starboard (or turn the wheel such that the bottom of the wheel’s turn direction goes to starboard). A famous example of where you can see this is in some depictions of the Titanic wreck where First Officer William Murdoch gives a “hard to starboard” command and the ship then turns to port.  This was not a mistake.  The helmsmen did exactly as he should have when the order was given.
  • When it is dark, it is customary to have a red light on the port side of a boat or plane and a green light on the starboard side.
  • An easy way to remember which side of the ship is port or starboard (besides just remembering that “starboard” came from the steering oar placed on the right side of a ship because most people are right handed) is just to remember that a ship at sea has “left” port.  Another one is “Star light, star bright, starboard is on the right”.
  • The word “port” comes from the Latin “portus” meaning “port/harbor”, which before that meant “entrance, passage”.  This in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European “*prtu”, meaning “a passage”.

Expand for References

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17 Comments »

  1. dtc January 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    I found the easiest way to remember which is which is that ‘port’ has 4 letters, as does ‘left’.

  2. Wayne January 10, 2013 at 8:57 am - Reply

    Re Bonus II: Coast Guard/Navy mnemonic for remembering which side is red (and therefore which side is green) “Port is red, as red wine is”

  3. Nachum January 10, 2013 at 9:45 am - Reply

    And alphabetic- P before S, L before R.

    The green and red are on the sides they are because right of way (as with cars) belongs to the ship coming from the right. So a ship coming from the right will see a green light, meaning “go.” The ship on the left will see a red light, meaning “stop.” (Again, the same as on land.) There are other lights- white ones- placed to help for the same purpose.

    Airplanes (and even Star Trek’s starships) have red and green lights on the same sides, but that’s mostly symbolic.

  4. Sol Impugn January 10, 2013 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Former Boatswains’ Mate and Master Helmsman here. Easiest way to remember that never fails:

    Each of these words: right, starboard, green

    …are longer than their counterpart words: left, port, red

  5. jkm January 10, 2013 at 10:48 am - Reply

    As a young Midshipman learning the ropes, I was taught by the old salts to remember that the red light was “port” by associating it with “port wine”, which is, of course, red. Further, port, like left, has 4 letters. And finally, “red light returning” reminded you that if you saw a red and a green running light, and the red was on the right, you potentially had a problem to solve.

  6. Reg January 10, 2013 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    Thank you for all your wonderful work but I need to add something to this recent reference.

    This is separate to the fact that some ship’s wheels were placed in reverse, the helmsman facing the REAR of the ship so that he could watch the wake.

    The more important aspect is that the helm only moves the rear of the ship to the left or the right, making the pivot point the “sharp end.”

    The more swiftly the rear of the ship can be swung, the sooner the change of direction with subsequent loss of headway and since this is costly, it may also be undesirable. So right hand down or left hand may achieve a suitable
    response depending on which side of the wheel the operator is standing.

  7. Kaitlin Fouché January 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    You’re all over-complicating it, with word lengths, etc.! The way I learned it – ‘Red port, left on the shelf..’ Easy peasy, and I haven’t had a problem yet!

  8. Kip May 31, 2013 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    Another navigational aid with red lights is that channel marking lights are set up such that as you come into port the red lights are on the right side of the channel so the mnemonic is ‘red right returning’.

  9. ian h July 9, 2013 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Port, then, obviously is to, or on the right. Why, therefore, does the skipper on HMS Titanic shout ‘hard a-starboard’ and the ship turns left, just before glancing the iceberg?

  10. sg July 26, 2013 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    I’d learned that this was slang used by sailors from europe sailing around africa. Port came from the fact that most of the journey was either spent sailing south down the western coast of africa, or north up the eastern coast. In either case, any port you would approach would be to your left. To your right, however, would be nothing but sea and stars. Whether this is historically accurate or just a mnemonic someone created is, of course, entirely open to debate.

  11. BL Soodan October 13, 2013 at 12:12 am - Reply

    What I have learned about it in child hood was something like this .U believe it it or not but comment. Port & star board term were first used by Vasco-da-gama & his team of 170 crew members while their journey from Purtgal to India way back in 1497-98. They followed the route from Europe to to India Via western coast of Africa to south of Africa Then To eastern coast of Africa and lastly after 11 months of voyage they reached at Calicut. During this long journey they always found Port towards their left side only. Whenever they needed to rest there journey for whatsoever reason they used term “Lets sail towards Port”. and they always found PORT to there Left. Similarly to their right hand side they could found only seawater & at night sky full of STARS from top to extreme right touching to water. Hence they called it BOARD studded with full of STARS i.e. Star Board side.

  12. e503 February 9, 2014 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Daven Hiskey. This was a very informative article, and I hope more people actually read it before commenting.

  13. Colin August 8, 2014 at 4:50 am - Reply

    We used to remember this by “Is there any Red Port Left in the bottle?”

  14. Jo Boehm September 9, 2014 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    dtc has it right. My husband, a marine engineer, taught me an easy way. Port and left have less letters.
    Right and starboard have more letters.

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