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What’s the Difference Between a Boat and a Ship?

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The Supreme Court ruled last week in the case of Fane Lozman vs the City of Riviera Beach, Florida. They decided that Lozman’s 60-foot, two-story, motorless, rudderless floating home was not a boat or a vessel, and hence should not have been seized under maritime law and destroyed by the city.

With the line between house and boat a little bit clearer, reader Steve asked us to clarify something else: “What defines a boat, versus a ship?”

One of the quickest ways to reveal yourself as a landlubber is to refer to a ship as a boat, but there’s no absolute distinction between the two, and even experienced mariners rely on local custom and usage to differentiate them. 

Back in the Age of Sail, a ship was pretty well defined as a vessel with three or more square rigged masts. As different methods of power generation replaced wind and sail, the ships of old became more specifically known as “sailing ships,” and the usage of ship broadened to cover a wide, ill-defined variety of vessels. 

One thing that sets a ship apart from a boat is size. According the U.S. Naval Institute, a boat, generally speaking, is small enough to be carried aboard a larger vessel, and a vessel large enough to carry a smaller one is a ship. Or, as Steve says his Navy Lieutenant father put it to him, “You can put a boat on a ship, but you can’t put a ship on a boat.”

Now, this Naval convention is a good rule of thumb most of the time, but there are a few exceptions, among both naval and civilian vessels. Some yachts, ferries, tug boats, fishing boats, police boats, etc. can carry small lifeboats or dinghies, but they usually don’t graduate to ship status because of that. On the other hand, a large container ship or the USS Cole can be carried aboard an even bigger ship without getting demoted to a boat. 

The U.S. Navy seems to want to have it both ways with their submarines. One component of each vessel’s official name is USSthat is, United States Ship—but seamen, the Naval Institute says, usually refer to submarines in general as boats, regardless of size. 

Another factor the Naval Institute considers is the vessel’s crew, command, and use. If it has a permanent crew with a commanding officer, it’s usually a ship. If it’s only crewed when actually in use and has no official CO, then you’re probably dealing with a boat. Ships are also usually intended and designed for deep-water use and are able to operate independently for long periods of time. Boats, meanwhile, lack the fuel and cargo capacity for extended, unassisted operation. 

Again, though, there are some exceptions in actual usage. Most commercial fishing vessels, for example, are large and can go out alone on the open ocean for weeks at a time. They’re almost always called boats, though, and rarely “fishing ships.” 

Without any hard and fast rules about boats and ships, we humbly suggest another loose guideline that will ingratiate you to the captain of any sort of vessel: Call it whatever the skipper wants you to call it. 

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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