What’s the Relationship Between “Ship” and “-ship”?

By Mark Nichol

Is there any connection between the nautical term ship and the prefix -ship? As it turns out, the word and the prefix may share an ancient ancestry.

The word ship is descended from the Old English term scip (pronounced the same as ship), meaning “ship” or “boat.” Its origin is obscure but may stem from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “cut” or “split,” in the sense that the first boats were hollowed-out logs.

Ship is the first or second element in many closed compounds:

shipboard: existing or happening on a ship, or a ship or the side of a ship
shipmate: a fellow crew member on a ship
shipment: cargo carried on a ship; now, by extension, any package sent from one place to another
shipshape: properly arranged, based on the tradition of neatness and organization on a ship to facilitate handling of the ship’s gear and rigging
shipwreck: the act of a ship being disabled or sunk, or a ship that has been disabled or sunk
shipwright: a shipbuilder
shipyard: a facility where ships are built
airship: a powered vessel held aloft by a gas lighter than the surrounding atmosphere
battleship: originally, one of several classes of warship large enough to serve in the line of battle during the Age of Sail (hence called at first “line-of-battle ships” and later simply “battleships”); later, a specific class of modern warship that is now obsolete
flagship: a warship carrying a fleet commander, named after the flag hoisted to signal that such an officer is aboard
longship: a long, narrow ship of the kind built by the Norse up until the Middle Ages
mothership: a ship that leads, carries, or serves other, smaller vessels
starship: in fiction, a vessel used in space exploration or travel
steamship: a ship powered by steam engines
warship: a vessel used in, and sometimes designed especially for, warfare

Two related words are skipper (from the Middle Dutch term scipper), which originally denoted the master of a ship but later, by extension, came to refer to the captain of an athletic team, and skiff (from a Germanic word by way of Italian and French), which began as a generic term for a small boat but now refers specifically to a flat-bottomed rowboat for one or two people.

The suffix -ship, meanwhile, can be attached to any of numerous nouns to refer to condition, quality, skill, or other characteristic: Examples with various senses for the suffix include companionship (the quality of being or having a companion), internship (an unpaid training job), and penmanship (the skill of writing with a pen or pencil).

The suffix also apparently stems from a prehistoric word that means “cut,” “hack,” or “scrape” that is the source of ship and is cognate with shape. The suffix -scape is also related: The compound landscape, from a Dutch word meaning “condition of the land,” entered English in the sense of “a painting of natural scenery” but also denotes the appearance of land. The words cityscape and seascape are among those inspired by the original compound. (Escape is unrelated; it derives from the Latin prefix ex- and the term cappa, meaning “cloak” or “head covering.”)

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