Sometime in the last decade or so, collectively, a terrible change has been wrought on the English language by the guardians of style. Ships were stripped of their femininity.
It is not too late to reverse this dreadful decision, which was certainly made consciously by a few style editors in the major publications. I was taught that in English, animate creatures have gender and inanimate objects are neuter, except for ships, which are feminine. But somewhere, political correctness crept in and decided that ships would henceforth be “it”.
Other machines, particularly those that carry people, are also sometimes affectionately and colloquially called “she”, like ships, but it is a colloquialism, whereas the femininity of ships is a feature of the language. A car, or a plane or a train can no more be a “she” than a cheese or a potato; but in English, ships are she.
At one level, the femininity of ships is simply a poetic eccentricity of the language. A passage using “it” instead of “she” invariably seems duller and more prolix; but the preservation of feminine ships is not just a matter of keeping the language attractive. It is a direct reference to our maritime history, and neutering ships cuts out a central part of our linguistic heritage. Whoever it was who decided that ships should henceforth be neuter can never have been to sea.
It was sailors who first gave ships their femininity, not for any sexual reason but because at sea they depend on the ship as a child depends on its mother. A ship – particularly a sailing vessel, and indeed any ship below a monstrous size – becomes alive at sea; she protects her brood, the crew who sail her, from the dark inanimate viciousness of the elements. Mostly, the crew were men; often, they were deprived of female company for months on end. But their ship is feminine not because she is a substitute woman, but because she is their maternal protector. She will always be a ship, and never a wife or a woman, but to a sailor, the ship will always be she.