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French Ship Names in Age of Sail

Charles-René Magon

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I would like to make a clarification concerning the names of French warships in the age of sail.


In the 18th century, the article "Le", "La", "Les" or "L'" were part of the name of the ship. The name of the 118-gun isn't "Océan" or "the Océan", it's "L'Océan". The name of the 74-gun isn't "Téméraire", it's "Le Téméraire"... These should never be preceded by the English definite article. For example : "Leaving Toulon, L'Orient led the fleet" and not "Leaving Toulon, the L'Orient led the fleet".


"Le" used for "male names" : for example Le Formidable or Le Redoutable ;

"La" for "female names" : La Ville de Paris or La Renommée ;

"Les" (very rarely) for plurals names : Les États de Bourgogne or Les Droits de l'Homme ;

and "L'" if the noun begins with a vowel (A, E, I, O, U, Y) or the letter "H" : L'Unité, L'Orient or L'Hermione...


Traditionally, the name was of the same gender as the type of ship. Ships of the line (vaisseaux in french), brigs (bricks), cutters (cotres), xebecs (chébecs) had male names ; frigates (frégates), corvettes, schooners (goélettes), galleys (galères), feluccas (felouques), rowboats and some types of 'boats' as in 'gunboat' (chaloupes), barges and gabares (various péniches)… had female names. For example : the 80-gun Le Tonnant or the 110-gun Le Royal Louis ; the frigates La Vénus or La Forte. But there are exceptions : the 110-gun La Bretagne or the 118-gun La République française or the frigates Le Muiron and Le Rubis...


I know... it is very complicated ! If you have a doubt for your name french, PM me :)


Sorry for my bad english :(

Edited by Charles-René Magon
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Good question. In the 17th and 18th century, yes, it seems the name on the stern of a ship include the article. But in the 19th century, this practice seems gradually abandoned (but many ships have the article on their stern during the Napoleonic era).


For exemple, models of the Musée national de la Marine in Paris :


Le Triomphant (ship of the line, 1809) : http://mnm.webmuseo.com/ws/musee-national-marine/app/file/download/M5026-2001-DE-0019-2.jpg?key=ae4d2ez8is4d3z3jjjd0wqp00htk8edlo


La Flore (frigate, 1806) : http://culturebox.francetvinfo.fr/sites/default/files/styles/article_view_full_main_image/public/assets/images/2014/06/marine-poupe.jpg?itok=N4stH7fl


L'Océan, 118-gun :




And l'Hermione today :



Edited by Charles-René Magon
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