World Wide Words logo


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.”

Page created 27 Nov. 2004

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.

Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL:
Last modified: 27 November 2004.