Irish Language Blog

How to say ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ in Irish and a few other nautical terms Posted by on Mar 31, 2019 in Irish Language

(le Róislín); Pearson Scott Foresman-Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation. Public domain. Téacs Gaeilge le Róislín (2019)

Nautical terms have always intrigued me, including such colorful ones as “scuttlebutt” and “three sheets to the wind.”  So today I thought I’d cover a few of the most basic terms pertaining to parts of a boat or ship.  If there’s interest, perhaps we can cover more such terms in the future.

So here are today’s terms, and there will be a few samples of usage: starboard, port, bow, stern.

1.. Starboard, which refers to “steering” not to “stars”!

a.. The translation that seems most straightforward is “deasbhord,” with “deas” here meaning “right.” “Ar an deasbhord” means “to starboard.” “Ar a deasbhord” also means “to starboard,” lit. “to her starboard,” referring to the ship itself (as “her”).

b.. There is another option, “bord na heangaí,” lit. on the side of the net, from “eangach” (a net). With this usage, “ar bhord na heangaí” means “to starboard.”

A brief online survey of usages in context (i.e. not dictionary entries or basic word lists) yielded 11 for “ar an deasbhord” and 3 for “ar bhord na heangaí.” Admittedly a very small sample of hits, but probably enough to show a trend, that the more straightforward term seems to be favored these days. I am left wondering if “ar bhord na heangaí” would also be used on a large ship, like a “long chrúsála” or a “línéar farraige móire,” which would probably not typically lower fishing nets.  Eolas ag éinne?

2.. Port, so-named because it’s generally the side on which the boat or ship ties up to the wharf (the left side as you face the bow), which is part of the port harbor. At least that was true when boats used to be steered with oars and the steering oar was on the right side (starboard) as you faced the front of the boat.

As with “starboard,” there are two typical phrases for “port” — clébhord (from “clé,” left) and bord na sceathraí (or “bord na scearthaí“).

a.. The more straightforward term is “clébhord” and “to port” is “ar an gclébhord” (OR “ar an chlébhord“).

b.. “Bord na sceathraí” is based on the (rather amazing) word “sceathrach,” a noun whose meanings include the following: vomit, spewing, spawn, discharging, material that is thrown overboard from a fishing boat (presumably fish that are too small to keep or scraps from gutting fish), and finally anything spread about chaotically or in a disorganized matter. An-úsáideach mar fhocal!

So it does raise a question in my non-nautical mind — on a traditional fishing boat, is there a pattern of lowering fishnets to the starboard side and discarding unwanted material to the port side?  If so, why, and how come I didn’t learn that from my rigorous maritime education — mostly gained by watching Captains Courageous or A Perfect Storm.  Or should I have learned this from Laurel and Hardy’s unbelievably named Towed in a Hole (racht gáire anseo, mura mhiste leat).  On the other hand, perhaps this whole duplicate terminology situation is just a relic of days gone by, with little practical application today.

“Land to port” is “Talamh ar an gclébhord” or “Talamh ar bhord na sceathraí.”

“Port” also used to be called “larboard,” which sounds vaguely familiar to me, probably from novels set in the days of “longa arda” (tall ships), and, btw, I did buy A Sea of Words to help with the Patrick O’Brian novels.  What a treasure trove for a “ieithgi” (Welsh for “language hound”)!   In this older term, the  “lar-” of “larboard” referred to the “load” the ship was carrying.  AFAIK, there’s no specific Irish word for the loading side of a ship based on the typical word for load (uall, or sometimes “lód,” with “lasta,” “lastas,” and “lucht” for “cargo”).  So larboard would also be “clébhord” or “bord na sceathraí,” same as the definitions above. Apparently “larboard” faded out of usage in English  because it sounded too much like “starboard” and generated confusion on a noisy ship.  Watch that you don’t mistake English “larboard” for the Irish “lárbhord” which means “afterdeck” (aka aft deck) from the Irish “lár” for “center.”  How “center” gets used for English “after,” I have no idea!  Eolas ag éinne?

As for the comparison between using “clé” or “sceathrach” for the term for port side, these are the results I got for contextual usage:

ar an gclébhord” – 6 hits with none for the northern variation, “ar an chlébhord

ar chlébhord” – just 1 hit but it’s a solid source since it’s from BORD IMSCRÚDÚ TAISMÍ MUIRÍ (The Marine Casualty Investigation Board) ( “ar chlébhord an tí deice.”

For what it’s worth, I don’t see any mention in this document of “bord na sceathraí” or “bord na scearthaí” or, for that matter,  “bord na heangaí.”  Admittedly, not a lot of results, but “Is fearr leathbhuilín ná a bheith gan arán.”

“Bow” and “stern” in Irish seem to be much more straightforward than their English equivalents.  Anyone with basic Irish should be able to interpret “ceann” / “tosach” and “deireadh.”  But to be quite honest, the world of English nautical terms has always seemed to me like a whole other language, from the prow (as opposed to the “bow”) to the sternpost and from the crow’s nest to the bilge — it keeps me on my toes checking out what the words actually mean.  Anyway, here’s “bow” and “stern.”

3.. bow – the two main choices are

a.. tosach, front part, often used with “báid” (of a boat) or “loinge” (of a ship) to give the specifically nautical meaning

b.. ceann, head, again often used with “báid” or “loinge” to give the specifically nautical meaning

I’ve also seen “gob” (lit. beak, beak-like mouth) used for “bow,” but it seems more like a “prow” to me.  Barúil ag seoltóir nó ag mairnéalach amuigh ansin?

4.. stern: deireadh (lit. “end” as in “deireadh an scéil,” the end of the story or “an deireadh seachtaine,” the weekend). “Of the stern” is “deiridh.”

Examples include:

toward the stern (aft): i dtreo an deiridh

fore and aft: chun tosaigh agus chun deiridh

from stem to stern: ó thosach go deireadh

stern foremost: ar lorg a deiridh (“deiridh” = “of the end,” “of the stern”)

stern ladder: dréimire deiridh

In conclusion, I’m left wondering if these terms were/are used equally with currachs, small sailboats, motorboats, tall ships, and modern ocean liners, battleships, cruisers and cruise ships.  The larger the vessel, what are the chances of the crew being fully Irish-speaking and using these terms, anyway?  Ceist do Chabhlach na hÉireann, b’fhéidir.

Ní seoltóir mé, agus mar sin fáilte roimh cheartúchán nó roimh shoiléiriú!  SGF — Róislín

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