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The A-Gendered 'She' And The Gendered Sea

When I watched my male friend plant face-first onto the road after falling off his bike, the first thing I said to describe the event afterwards was: “she slayed.” Was this because I’m insufferable? Absolutely. But is it also because I’m linguistically attached to my generation? Yes. 

The domination of the pronoun “she” has become a linguistic epidemic seemingly very recently. TikTok and the gay community have been labelled as the driving forces, fueled further by the shift we’ve seen in gender stereotypes. The right-wing is quick to label those who perpetuate “she” as “woke,” ironically calling it an affront to people’s gender identity. But that’s exactly what it’s not. Our use of “she” is not an over-expansion of the female gender, it’s just a bit of linguistic fun. It’s a result of a generation of children growing up watching shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, and using social media reigned by content creators who usually happen to be gay. 

But what right-wing accusers seem to forget is that using feminine pronouns to refer to objects or things that are very much not feminine is not actually a recent phenomenon. The only recent development is that now this linguistic usage is broadcast on media platforms. The use of the “she” pronoun in reference to inanimate objects can very easily be tracked to the maritime community since the fourteenth century, countering many of the accusations boomers have levelled against us. As much is evident in the still-prevalent tradition of referring to boats as “she” — “on her maiden voyage” is still used to describe the first outing of a vessel, for example. Seafarers, historians, and academics all provide various reasons for the tradition of referring to ships as “she.” These range from viewing a vessel as a motherly, life-sustaining figure, to jokingly likening a ship to a lady who is expensive to keep, requiring a man to guide her, and a lick of paint to look good — something to own, and something to show off. 

This association arguably stems from a linguistically gendered sea. Not only are the boats representative of women, but so is the sea the vessels surf. This feminisation can be traced back to ancient mythology and folklore. In many such cultures, the sea was personified as a goddess — like Tethys in Greek mythology, or Sedna in Inuit folklore — to symbolise its omnipotence and life-giving qualities. Additionally, the tradition of feminising ships transcends mere linguistic idiosyncrasies: it reflects a deep emotional bond forged between sailors and their vessels. To mariners, ships were more than just tools of trade or instruments of war; they were steadfast companions, offering refuge in the vastness of the ocean. In an environment fraught with danger, sailors personified their ships, attributing them with the human qualities of strength, resilience, and grace. Ships became replacements for sailors’ wives. Consequently, they became something to trust, something to love, an embodiment of the sailors’ homes — all reiterated by the gender denomination ingrained in the use of the “she” pronoun. 

But perhaps decreeing genders of inanimate objects is us filling in a linguistic hole in English. We are one of the few languages without the grammatical genderisation of nouns, and maybe our proliferation of “she” is an attempt to level the playing field. Even languages that similarly use the Latin script — the letters on our laptop keyboards — give objects a gender. La nave (Italian), navis (Latin), and Συρακουσία (Homeric Greek) are all translations of “ship”, proving that giving objects a feminine pronoun is by no means an English problem, let alone one exclusive to Gen Z.

It is important to note that when gendering things in a language, it is not the noun itself that is gendered but the name we call it by. By referring to a particularly good grade or my embarrassed friend as a “she,” I’m not implying they are a woman, nor identify as one — I’m just following a trend. A six-hundred-year-old trend, no less. The a-gendered “she” is not a neoteric linguistic epidemic, but in fact deeply entrenched in Indo-Western culture. It’s not another excuse to attack our social media generation and the gay community.

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