In English, the right side of a ship (and everything beyond said side) is called «starboard». I know enough about sailing and about stars to know that stars can't have anything to do with that name, and thus I got to wonder: maybe «starboard» came from Spanish «estribor»?

Conversely, in Spanish, the right side of a ship (etc.) is called «estribor». Once again, I know that it can't possibly have anything to do with a «estribo» (which is where you put your feet when you ride a horse). So maybe it's the other way around, and «estribor» comes from English «starboard»?

I've done my fair bit of research:

  • Merriam-Webster English dictionary says «starboard» comes from Old English «stēorbord» and is first found in writing before s. XII.
  • Google's NGRAM has nothing about the Middle and Old English words, though. It claims it has results for «starboard» in books from 1550, but when you query for the actual books, only books from s. XVII onwards come up.
  • RAE Spanish dictionary says «estribor» comes from old French «estribord». However, I've checked the etymology for modern French «tribord» on some French dictionaries and they say it comes from «stirbord» instead; no references to «estribord» anywhere.
  • NGRAM has nothing for «estribor» before ~1740...
  • ... but CORDE has registered uses for «estribor» from as early as 1527. Then again, it seems strange that «estribor» was already written like that in early 16th century.
  • Finally, the Lexicon Tetraglotton, an English-Italian-French-Spanish dictionary from 1660, says Spanish for «starboard» in s. XVII was «estroiborda». Probably a mistake, but there's that.

So... I'm aware that, most certainly, both words come from some old Indo-Germanic-Something root meaning «the side of the steering stick». But which one appeared first in its current form in their own language? And has any of them, directly or indirectly, influenced the way the other one is written today?

  • 3
    There is a reasonable discussion here: etymonline.com/…
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 9:58
  • 1
    Nice research. Seems like stjórnborða occurs in the Eiríks saga rauða, which is said to date to 1265 or earlier. For the record, estibordo/destibordo occur in the Portuguese/Japanese Jesuit 1603 glossary, the Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam. Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 10:01
  • 1
    Sounds as if the Spanish has been folk-etymologised to refer to 'estribo' - I wonder if that in turn is a borrowing from English 'stirrup'?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 10:33
  • @fdb I wouldn't call two paragraphs of text a "reasonable discussion" (just the OQ is longer than that), but interesting info nonetheless, although it doesn't mention Spanish. Seems clear anyway that Spanish estribor does not come from English directly, but rather from the same Germanic roots as the French and Italian variants. Maybe you could make that an answer so I can accept it?
    – walen
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 8:18
  • @leoboiko Written records of Spanish estribor predate that Jesuit glossary by almost a century, so that rules out the Spanish being taken from Portuguese. Is that what you meant?
    – walen
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 8:21

2 Answers 2


According to CRNTL1 and the RAE2:

  • Proto-Germanic *steuraz + *burdą

    • Old English stēorbord

      • Middle English sterbord

        • English starboard
    • Classic Dutch stierboord (1588)

      • Old French destribort (1550)9 / destribord (1677)7, 8

      • Old French destrebort (1484) (GARCIE, Le Grant routier, Rouen ds Fr. mod. t. 26 1958, p. 58)

        • Old French estribord (1601)6

          • Early Modern Spanish estriborda (1607)5

          • Spanish estribor (1605)3

        • Old French stribort / stribord (1559)4

        • Old French tribort (1545) / tribord (1552)
          (CARTIER, Brief recit, éd. D'Avezac, 1863, 8 ro, ibid.) / (RABELAIS, Quart livre, XXII, éd. R. Marichal, p. 117)

          • French tribord (1798) (Common and accepted use)

It's a similar etymological story for babor (esp.) < babord (fra.) < bakboord (ned.); bæcbord (old eng.)


 1. http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/tribord
 2. http://dle.rae.es/?id=GzZTd0r
 3. La Florida Del Inca, Garcilaso De La Vega
 4. stribort (x1), stribord (x2)
  • Voyages avantureux (et tables de la declinaison que fait le Soleil de la ligne equinoctiale par Olivier Bisselin.), Jan Sainctongeois Alfonce
 5. Tesoro de las dos lenguas francesa y española, César Oudin
 6. Le second livre, iovrnal ou comptoir,...
 7. L' Architecture navale contenant la maniere de construire les navires,...
 8. L'art de naviger demontré par principes, & confirmé par plusieurs ..., Claude Francois Milliet de Chales
 9. Amadis de Gaule: Contenant partie des faictz chevalereux d ..., Volume 5
 10. Use of both spellings destrebort (x12) and destrebord (x1) in one work (1622)
  • Le grand Routier, pillotage et encrage de mer, tant des parties de ...
 11. stribord vs tribord Google ngrams


As pointed in other answer, starboard comes from Middle English sterbord. What wasn't pointed is that that would mean "steerboard" - the side of the steerwheel, relative to pilot of a ship, as opposed to "backboard".

So, Spanish estribor (like French tribord, Italian stribordo, Portuguese estibordo) is a loan from some Germanic language, not the other way round.

  • The steerboard predates the ship's wheel. It was the edge (board) where the steering oar was fastened. Being fastened there is why the other side was always the one facing the dock (port). I don't know if the word 'steer' hides 'star' or 'oar', but the Vikings certainly had the ability to steer by the stars.
    – amI
    Commented Sep 15, 2018 at 0:51
  • I think the reason it wasn't pointed in the answer is because it was already mentioned in the question itself (last paragraph), along with the Germanic origin. The question is not whether Spanish came from English or English from Spanish, but which one appeared first.
    – walen
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 6:26

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