Norwegian words in English: Starboard
M. Michael Brady
An old sea story has the captain of a ship getting up every morning to open a small safe in his cabin, read a note kept there, return it, and lock the safe before going on duty for the day. One day he dies at sea.
Long curious as to what’s in that note, his officers then open the safe to find that the note has just four words: “Port left, Starboard right.”
The story is unlikely for professional seamen, but does focus on the little-known roots of the words “port” and “starboard” for designating the left and right sides of a ship in English.
The word “port” is straightforward. It’s the left side customarily toward the dock when a ship is in port.
That custom apparently arose because it’s the opposite side to “starboard,” a word that comes from the Old Norse word stjόrnborði (“steering board”). This designated an oversized oar or board fixed to the right aft side and used to control the direction of a ship before rudders were invented. The custom may have arisen to avoid risk of damage to the vulnerable steering mechanism when in port.
Terms for the “steering board” most likely date from antiquity, as reliefs depicting scenes of the Roman Empire show vessels such as the corbita being steered with a right aft board.
The mode of steering a Viking ship was by its stjόrnborði, which with time became styrbord in Norwegian (as well as Danish and Swedish), and anglicized to starboard in English.
It also appeared in the Oct. 3, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.