This was originally published in my work Slack on 2016-12-20, but I’ve since been convinced that more people than just those few who can even read it there might be interested. I’ve edited it for clarity and correctness. I’m going to migrate all my Linguistics Minutes over to my blog and probably post future ones here.

The way I have always remembered which is which on a boat is that it used to be “starboard and larboard” and that larboard and left both start with “L”. Here’s the story of these three words.

The Angles and Saxons were big seafarers, so they had a lot of words for boat-related stuff. The Old English word bord meant “the side of the boat”. Linguists disagree about whether this is related to modern board meaning “a plank of wood” and if so how.

On these boats, they had a really long oar that they’d put in the water to help direct the boat: sort of a precursor to a rudder. They called this oar a steor (pronounced like “steer” and, yes, related to modern steer meaning “to guide the course of a vehicle”). Generally, maybe because right handed people are more common, the steor hung off the right side of the boat. Or the right bord. So the side of the boat with the rudder oar was called the steorbord and later sound shifts rendered modern starboard.

So when these boats with the big, long steors pulled up to the dock, they had to do so with the other side facing the dock because otherwise the hull would trap the steor against the dock and snap it as the sea swelled. So the other bord was called the ladde bord. That word ladde is pronounced like modern ladder with the final -r off, so it had two syllables. It means “loading” and shares a root with that modern word. So the laddebord was the “loading side (of the ship)”. Because humans are lazy, the medial -dd- eventually sort of vanished and the word became laerbord. That medial -r- appeared because of the influence of steorbord.

But when you’re on the high seas in the middle of a storm trying to steer around rocks or whatever and you’re at the front of the boat yelling back to the person crewing the steor, they can have a hard time differentiating you yelling, “Laerbord!” from, “Steorbord!” since they share so many sounds. Being a practical sort who don’t like drowning in shipwrecks, sailors began to call the left-hand side of the ship the port side since, you know, that’s the side the port was on when they parked their boat.

Thus, modern starboard and port and the somewhat archaic larboard.