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Q From Pat Aithie: I would like to know the origin of nave. I was once told that early small churches would use an upturned boat on a small structure to create a room for worship. Do you know if this is true or why the word is used in an ecclesiastical context?

A There’s no doubt that the word for the part of a Christian church intended for the use of the laity comes from the Latin navis for a ship (as does naval, for example). However, the word isn’t known in English until the naturalist John Ray included it in his book Observations Made in a Journey through Part of the Low-countries in 1673.

Before nave came into English, navis was sometimes employed instead (for example, it’s in a book by Sir Christopher Wren, dated 1669: “The Ailes, from whence arise Bows or Flying Buttresses to the Walls of the Navis”). A word with similar seafaring links is known, I am told, in many European languages, including Danish, French and German (in the last of these it’s Schiff, literally a ship).

One suggestion is that navis may have been influenced by the Classical Greek word for a temple that was similar to its word for a ship. It’s also sometimes said that the shape of the building suggested the simile, because it’s usually long and thin and often has a pitched roof that fancifully looks a bit like an upturned boat’s keel. A more probable root lies in an ancient allusion in which the Christian church is like a ship carrying its members in its protective embrace, just as Noah saved the animals in the Ark. A clerical polemic of 1844 says of the word government (from a Greek term that means “steersman”): “A metaphor from mariners or pilots, that steer and govern the ship: translated thence, to signify the power and authority of church governors, spiritual pilots, steering the ship or ark of Christ’s Church.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Nov. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 27 November 2004.