Naming A Ship: What You Need to Consider and How It's Happened Historically

When it comes to larger vessels, names have played an essential role for ships. Between military vessels, passenger liners, and other civilian-owned ships, names not only serve as an indication of identity. They can also help with determining what the vessel's overall purpose is. Because of these aspects, naming a ship is no simple task.

To avoid confusion (and potential legal ramifications), it's essential to know all the regulations, definitions, and conventions that go into naming ships. This process can be very different from picking a name for personal watercraft. If you're undertaking this task, we've got you covered.

Regulations for Naming a Ship

Conventions are the main driving force in determining ship names. Tradition guides many of the more significant ways we name vessels, both inside the military and outside with civilian ships. While most ships do follow these conventions (which we'll cover later), they are not hard and fast laws that you must follow.

However, there are laws put in place by the US Coast Guard that determine what is and is not acceptable when it comes to naming a ship. These regulations include:

  • The name uses letters from the Latin alphabet
  • It may consist of Arabic or Roman numerals
  • The name must not be longer than thirty-three characters
  • Ship names cannot look or sound like words that indicate the need for help at sea (SOS, etc.)
  • These names also cannot look or sound like words that are obscene, indecent, profane, or include racial and ethnic slurs

As long as a proposed name meets all these requirements, almost anything else can how. However, the consensus is to avoid as much confusion as possible. As such, a ship name should only indicate that it is a particular type of vessel if that is the case. This factor is especially important to consider when it comes to prefixes and abbreviations, which have commonly understood meanings.

Technical Definitions and Ship Prefixes

Ship prefixes come in many forms, and numerous ones have cycled in and out of use throughout the years. If you want to view an exhaustive list of these prefixes and other standard ship abbreviations, check out one here, but some of the most common ones for ships include:

  • MS – Motor Ship
  • MT – Motor Tanker
  • MV – Motor Vessel
  • MY – Motor Yacht
  • SY – Sailing Yacht

Again, the purpose of these prefixes is to help further identify different types of ships. You do not have to use them in your ship name. Even so, they can be a useful indicator of what kind of vessel you have and a way to differentiate ships with the same base name from each other.

Additionally, as ships can have similar builds but different purposes, prefixes help to determine a boat's use, even if it may not be evident at first glance. This help is especially helpful when dealing with specialty craft. For example, research vessels (RV) or commercial merchant vessels (MV) may have similarities to other boats but contain specific equipment.

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Naming Conventions Throughout History

Aside from the use of prefixes, many standard name conventions have been in place over time. These conventions can work on the national level, while some boat manufacturers use specific patterns in their names as well. For example, Cunard White Star Line Limited, a company geared towards ocean liners, chose names for their vessels that ended in "-ia" for some time. Sister ships often have similar names.

The use of female pronouns (she/her) to refer to ships has also led to frequent usage of women's names for boats. This practice has some irony in that there was common superstition that have a woman on board was bad luck. And yet, we still see these types of names come into play today. Flower names are also common choices for vessels, whether they be in English or another language.

Today, naming conventions have relaxed from the stricter patterns of the past, but many still exist as a means of following tradition.

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Civilian Ship Naming Conventions

When it comes to naming commercial, public use, and otherwise private vessels, the name often reflects the spirit of the boat's use. Aside from considering a prefix (which many modern commercial and civilian ships may not use), will focus on a name that works to project a certain vibe.

For example, recreational ships, such as cruise liners, will often have more playful names to encourage a positive mood while on board. The same occurs with yachts, which can have monikers that are more affectionate than what you may find on a cargo ship, as one example. In these cases, the type of name will be wholly dependent on the owner's whims.

Though ship naming regulations do allow for some length, many names consist of two words, which is a common practice for industrial shipowners. This practice has also begun to see some use in cruise ships, though they don't need to follow these patterns. As mentioned, many ship names are a matter of following what has already been established.

Distinctive names can also provide an advantage for commercial shipping vessels, which are available for hire to transport cargo. By having a memorable name, someone may be more likely to request a particular company's ship when they need to deliver cargo.

Military Ship Naming Conventions

Military ship names used to be more freeform, but modern times have adopted certain conventions that match up with more of a structure. Previously, naval vessels had a variety of prefixes, which could cover everything from battleships to specific types of auxiliary vessels to everything in between.

Some of these prefixes still see use. However, modern conventions also indicate that all warships carry the same designation to make them easily identifiable, while auxiliary vessels have a unique indicator. In the US Navy, "USS" stands for United States Ship, which is an indicator of a warship. "USNS" is United States Navy Ship, which is in use for auxiliary vessels. "HRM," in the UK, represents "Her/His Royal Majesty's" ship.

United States Navy ships also follow name patterns for the types of vessels. Some standard conventions that came into use at the beginning of the twentieth century are:

  • Names of states for battleships
  • Names of cities for cruisers
  • American naval heroes and leaders for destroyers
  • Fish and other sea creatures for submarines

Other naming conventions involved honoring fallen soldiers and other ships lost in wartime. Navy members killed in action during WWII became the namesakes of anti submarine patrol and escort ships, and names of sunk vessels saw reuse in a new boat under construction. "Inherited" ship names are also present with commercial and personal vessels as well. Though there are no laws that make these conventions a requirement, they persist as a means of naming today.

While not all navies around the world traditionally follow the prefix system, many modern military vessels bare one.

Ship Naming Conventions in Other Locations

So far we've covered ship naming conventions in English, but numerous other cultures and languages follow their patterns. Additionally, others may not have any set of rules that they consider at all.

For example, many Japanese ship names contain the sound "maru," which means "circle" when translated directly. The origins of this convention have many theories, some that include hoping that the ship will make a save roundtrip journey. It can also serve as an indicator that the ship itself is a castle or a whole world in itself. Japanese military vessels often form their names out of related characters. For example, aircraft carriers have used the kanji for flying animals and myths (dragon, crane, phoenix) as an indicator.

Displaying Ship Names

After selecting a ship name that meets the legal requirements, it's also necessary to show the title correctly. In the United States, this requires following a list of requirements:

  • Letters and numbers set up to read left to right
  • Characters need to be a minimum of three inches in height for visibility
  • Any spaces between words must be the length of one letter or number excluding 1 or the capital I
  • Characters used for the boat name must be a visible color in contrast to the hull of the boat

Note that these requirements apply to state-registered vessels. Federally registered vessels follow their own set of conventions, which include:

  • Characters must be at least three inches in height
  • It must indicate a hailing port by state, territory, or "in possession of the United States"
  • The use of block-type Arabic Numerals to show the official vessel number
  • Proper location on either side of the vessel or the transom

While you will need to display the name on the ship, there are no font or color requirements that you'll need to follow. Recreational and commercial vessels also have different requirements for where and how to post the boat's name.

When naming a boat of your own, you should always confirm that you are complying with regulations, as well as displaying your name correctly. So long as you fall into these frameworks, you're free to follow or not follow naming conventions as you like.