Tuesday, May 15, 2012

-shipping news

Down to the Sea in Ships--Adelaide Hiebel

A guest request came up last week from Julie, aka my sister, wondering about those "-ship" endings. Friendship, courtship, sponsorship, relationship--those kind of words. I have a feeling that I did run across the meaning of this suffix, in one of the many posts I seem to have done about ships (just punch "ship" into the search field here--you'll see what I mean), but if so, I don't remember it.

My guess is that "-ship" has little to do with "ship" unless "ship" is somehow derived from "-ship". Confused? Fear not.


As I thought, they are not related. And in fact, "-ship" is the relatively easy one. It is a suffix added to a noun to show its quality, status or condition. I liked the description of its various uses here, at the first comment, and was pleased to see that I was right in thinking, probably because I'd read it somewhere else relatively recently, that it is related to German suffix schaft. This suffix is mostly applied to nouns, but it was interesting to see in the above link that it was quite common in Old English to apply it to adjectives and participles as well. Apparently only two examples survived into our current day usage--"hardship" and "worship" (which is a shortened "worthyship").

As our commenter above says, this quality, state or condition stuff has many gradations. It can refer to number, skill, position or rank. At root, it all goes back to *scap, which means to create, ordain or appoint, but ultimately to that hypothesized PIE root, *scep, which has to do with shape.

Anyway, ship, the noun, has nothing to do with all that. What is nice is that it gives us a chance to visit my favorite etymological expert, Anatoly Liberman, who has been mentioned too rarely around these parts of late. Liberman is the kind of scholar who knows when to say, "It can't be known". Surprisingly, this is exactly what he has to say about the word 'ship'. Of course, this doesn't stop him from devoting two articles to it. You can find the first one here, and the second one here . If you haven't read his stuff before, despite being an expert, he writes terrific prose that is often dryly funny.


  1. “… it was quite common in Old English to apply it to adjectives and participles as well."

    I wonder if Premiership, the former name, still occasionally used, for England’s Premier League in soccer, is a survival of that older pattern of affixing –ship to an adjective.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. That's a good question, Peter, as it could also have something to do with a premier. I'm afraid English soccer is bit beyond my depths here, though.

    Here and elsewhere.

  3. My guess would be that the name is a boast that the league is of premier quality.

  4. Yes, it's hardly likely to be otherwise. But you never know.

  5. I just checked with a soccer-loving colleague who says that yes, the name simply indicates that the league is the premier level of English football.

  6. Thanks, Peter. So that is one more adjective use. I expect there are more.

  7. I always thought Premiership sounded overbearingly posh. I never knew it had been an official name for the league until I did a search prior to posting these comments. I had always thought it was an informal name for the league.

  8. Seana, first of all THANK YOU for researching that. It wasn't the most interesting of requests, perhaps, but I have always wanted to know. Secondly, the oddest thing was that when I read your post the other night, it was right after I had just spent hours of brain numbing online research about cruise lines. So when your subject matter "ship" came in my inbox, it almost made me fall off my chair!
    Quite fun and timely!

  9. No, it was an interesting request--I had a sense that I knew the "ships" were unrelated from somewhere, but it was fun to nail it down. Love those synchronicities.

    Just happen to be finishing up the closing credits of that Jason Isaacs Peter Pan as I write. Great show. Excellent cast. And, a ship.