The Curious Origins of the Terms ‘Port’ and ‘Starboard’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Why is the left-hand side of a ship known as ‘port’, and why is the right-hand side of a ship known as ‘starboard’? What are the origins of these universally known words? And what do they have to do with the word ‘posh’?

Let’s take a closer look at the etymologies of both port and starboard, because there’s a curious story behind how they came to be such a well-known pair in nautical terminology.

Let’s start with starboard. Here’s a quick quiz question: where does the word starboard come from?

a) Ships were once steered by the stars (before reliable compasses)
b) The word is a corruption of ‘steer side’
c) The word is a corruption of ‘stare-wards’
d) Something else

Despite appearances, the word has no etymological connection to the word ‘star’; it has nothing to do with steering the ship by using the stars as a guide, although this explanation of the word’s origins would, of course, make sense – if it were true.

The real etymology is somewhat less poetic. Viking ships were steered by rudders on the right side of the ship. The Vikings called this side of the ship styrbord, which is Old Norse for ‘steer side’, and somehow that got mutated into the English ‘starboard’.

The Vikings docked (i.e., lined up with the dock of a coast, or bay when they reached land) on the left-hand side, which they called the ladebord, meaning the ‘loading side’, because that was the side that they loaded and unloaded things on and off of the ship.

This in turn became the English ‘larboard’, so the left-hand side was the larboard side and the right-hand side was the starboard side.

Why did larboard get changed to port? Well, perhaps you can spot the potential problem with the two sides of the ship having rhyming names. And the problem was that ‘larboard’ sounded too much like ‘starboard’, and often people on board the ship misheard which side had been called.

This problem didn’t exist in the original Norse, because styrbord and ladebord sound sufficiently different from each other. Eventually, because of this confusion in English between ‘larboard’ and ‘starboard’, the British Admiralty ordered that the left side be known as the ‘port’ side. They chose the word ‘port’, not because of the fortified wine, but because ‘port’ means ‘harbour’, and the port side of the ship would be the one turned towards the harbour.

The word port is from the Latin portus meaning ‘carry’, because things were carried on and off ships on this side. The same Latin root also gives us the words porter (the person who carries your cases for you), portmanteau (literally, a case for carrying one’s cloak or mantle), and deportment (the way you carry or conduct yourself).

So, that’s how we ended up with the word port to denote the left-hand side of a ship.

But what do port and starboard have to do with another word, posh?

Well, there is a theory, popular in certain corners of the internet, that P&O ferries, in the days when Britain ruled India, were responsible for giving us the word ‘posh’, from the initial letters of the statement ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’.

This phrase, the theory goes, appeared on the tickets they sold to wealthy customers: tickets which gave the lucky customers the best berths on P&O ships. Wealthy customers would board the ship on the port side, and arrive home and disembark on the starboard side, hence ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’: port side on the way out, starboard side on the way back home.

This would make posh an example of an acronym: a word formed from the initial letters of a longer phrase, like laser (‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’) and NATO (‘North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’), among many others.

The one rather major flaw in this theory is that there is zero evidence to back it up. P&O ferries never printed ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ on their tickets. And in any case, acronyms were rare before the First World War, when the word AWOL (short for ‘absent without leave’ or ‘absent without official leave’) was first used.

The word ‘acronym’ itself wasn’t coined until 1943 – curiously enough, the same year that the ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ myth appears to have turned up in print for the first time, in Peter Muir’s travel book This Is India.

Nobody knows for sure where the word ‘posh’ actually does come from – but now, at least, we know where the terms port and starboard originated.