April 24, 2006

Yet Another Sign of the Apocalypse

We've seen several Signs of the Apocalypse recently, so I thought I'd mention another. I keep thinking of it every time I travel by airplane. Not only my fellow passengers, but flight attendants, who ought to know better, refer to the sides of the vessel using the words left and right. It seems as if I am the only person left on the planet who knows that an airplane is like a ship and has a port side and a starboard side. Sheesh.

There is actually a practical advantage to using port and starboard in some situations, due to the fact that they are not synonymous with left and right. port and starboard are defined with respect to the vessel, whereas left and right are defined with respect to the speaker, or the addressee, or possibly some other person. If the flight attendant tells you to evacuate using the port emergency exits, it is clear which ones to use, but if he or she says to use the left emergency exits there is sure to be confusion. Which left? The flight attendant's? The passengers'? And is the left of the passengers who are facing forward or the left of the passengers who are heading back to the restrooms?

What is curious about this is that such sources as www.answers.com, dict.die.net, and wordnet mention that starboard is applied both to ships and to aircraft, so it isn't exactly secret knowledge. What I wonder is, do people no longer find it comfortable to treat aircraft as ships, or have they simply lost touch with nautical terminology, so that they no longer use port and starboard at all, in reference to ships or aircraft?

In a fair Darwinian world those of us who retain the more refined terminology ought to have a survival advantage. I guess that ships and aircraft just aren't dangerous enough.

Posted by Bill Poser at April 24, 2006 01:35 PM