The history of the words 'port' and 'starboard', and how to remember which is which

Used by pirates on the high seas, these terms arrrrr really old.
Used by pirates on the high seas, these terms arrrrr really old. Photo credit: Getty Images

If you're not familiar with sailing but have been on a cruise, or plan to, then you're likely to get confused with the use of terms like "port" and "starboard".

Perhaps you know the terms from many hours watching the America's Cup. But do you know what they mean and where the terms came from?


Port is to your left if you are looking towards the front of the ship.

Originally the left side of the ship was called 'backbord', a German word which didn't last long and was replaced by the English word 'larboard', likely an adaptation of a word meaning 'loading side'.

Thankfully, someone along the way - apparently in the mid-19th century - realised that "larboard" and "starboard" sounded rather alike and could easily be confused or misheard. And that wouldn't be a good thing if you're under attack… or in more modern times, docking at a five-star hotel.

So the term port was introduced, but while the idea of the name deriving from a drunken sailors favourite high-seas tipple, its origin is much more simple.

Due to the position of the ship's captain, the vessel would always dock with the left side against the port, so there you have it.


Starboard is to the right of the ship when looking forward and the origin of the term is quite straightforward compared to the other side of the boat.

'Starboard' combines two old words, stéor ('steer') and bord ('the side of a boat').

So with the ship's captain steering the boat from the right side, stéorbord, starboard it was.


The bow is at the front of the boat. There are a few variations on exactly where this word comes from. 

The majority seem to land on an old English word "bough" or bóg, or bóh, as well as the German word "bugon", which means curve.


I'm sure many crew members over the years have joked the stern gets its name from the fact it's where the grumpy captain sits, but the root of the word goes a long way back.

It's linked to the Scandinavian word "stjorn" meaning "a steering". The term stern-wheeler, referring to a steamboat, popped up around 1855.

How do you remember which one is which?

There's a few ways to remember which is left and which is right.

You could try and remember that 'port' and 'left' both have four letters in them, or the old saying port is always left at sea but never left at dinner.

If neither of those work, then could resort to this dad joke. Consider yourself warned.

A sailor walks into a bar and sits down next to a pretty woman.

Sailor: Do you like men in uniform?

Woman: I like the army and the air force, but sailors annoy me.

Sailor: Why's that?

Woman: They just overuse nautical terminology so much. That sort of thing is really irritating.

Sailor: I guess you're starboard about that. My wife said the same thing when she port me.

If you managed to get through that, then there's two more locations on a cruise ship that you should get familiar with: the bar and the buffet.