Learn English – Noun genders in Moby Dick


English nouns do not have grammatical gender. But in Moby Dick, some nouns do seem to have gender, like "ship" (feminine) and "whale" (masculine). Some passages:

And now the time of tide has come; the ship casts off her cables.

Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror (…).

Is this some kind of non-standard variety of the language?

Best Answer

Neither of the examples are particularly non-standard.

Like people, sexed animals can also be referred to in either the masculine or feminine as appropriate when the sex is either known or assumed. You wouldn't refer to all whales in the masculine, but in the passage you quoted, the whale itself is a male, and therefore uses masculine pronouns to reference it.

I'll let the question aedia linked handle referring to ships in the feminine more specifically, but basically, it falls into a special case of non-living nouns that have historically been referred to using a feminine form.