I’ve been getting a lot of flak from boat purists about my post, The Sexiest Barges* In Puget Sound. I have no trouble admitting that a lot of it is really excellent flak.
In a letter to the editor, for instance, Scott Graebke writes:
Is this where I go to bitch about ALL the sexiest barges actually being CONTAINER SHIPS? Not one actual barge. A barge is a big fuckin air mattress that gets filled with shit and towed or pushed around by a tugboat. I can not indulge the author in the fantasy that anything that floats with a bunch of shit on it is a barge. I have personally pulled the lever that launched a barge. The Cape Flattery is a pretty sexy barge in Puget Sound. The Whidbey is not that saucy but is pretty cute. The author clearly is looking for BDE from something that floats, and BDE is container ship stuff. The Norwegian world record container ship has 38 foot diameter propellers. Barges have no propellers. They are just donkeys with no legs.
All good points. Slog commenter Kitschnsync sums up the ideology underlying Graebke's comment, which seems to be the majority opinion on this issue. Emphasis mine:
You don't get to call them barges just because you throw an asterisk in there. Words mean things, Rich! Your misuse is a distraction from the rest of the story (if the goofy anthropomorphization of container ships is a story, which on Slog I suppose it is.)
The idea that “words mean things” makes intuitive sense, but ultimately it’s just not true. Words don’t mean things. Words refer to things. The signifier bears no direct relation to the signified, as Lévi-Strauss would have it. The only reason blackberries are called “blackberries” is because we all agree that the plump, purplish fruits of that invasive bramble should be called “blackberries.”
Words change meaning all the time. Merriam-Webster tells us “Bully” used to mean sweetheart. Now it means the opposite. “Disappoint” used to mean to remove from office. "Secretary" used to mean "one entrusted with secrets." And “Fizzle” used to mean to fart quietly.
You may hate the fact that language changes constantly, or that words only mean what we say they mean, but I like it! It’s the only thing keeping literature lively. If the language didn’t change, there’d be nothing new to say.
And, after all, a word's ability to accrue meanings—unlike numbers, which come out clean with each new use—more closely connects the project of speaking and writing with the project of human history. Each word acts like a time capsule, and when we use them we tap into the power of all the meanings and associations they've gathered over time. (For a much more shortened and beautiful version of this idea, check out Richard Kenney's poem, "Words Are the Sum.") Tapping into this power helps us to better understand the world and each other.
Now, if calling barges “barges” and container ships "container ships" or bulkers or tankers or whatever makes the lives of captains and port workers easier, then they’ll continue to do so no matter what I do. And all to the good! But as a casual and amorous observer, I think the English language allows "barge" to mean "container ship," and I'm inviting you to come along with me on this.
I’ve already made the aesthetic argument. Onomatopoeically, the “container ship” looks like it’d be called a barge. If the container ship could speak, it would probably say “Barge barge barge, although, barge.”
Slightly related: the container ship looks more like the verb “to barge” than a barge does. All the commenters say the big difference between a barge and a container ship is that tug boats tow barges around and container ships propel themselves with giant propellers. But when you barge into a room you aren’t being towed in by a small boat. Just the opposite! Rage or curiosity or bravery propels you through the door and into the bedroom to confront whatever you think is there. Since, I’d wager, more people use the verb “to barge” more than the noun “barge,” and since a “container ship” looks like it’d barge in some place, it only makes sense to apply the verb to the self-propelled boat.
The etymology of “barge” also supports my view. According to etymonline, “barge” is 14th century French for "boat, ship," or a "seagoing vessel of moderate size with sails.” You see that? Seagoing. Not river-going or inlet-going or wherever. Seagoing. And those barges* in the Sound certainly go overseas. So I might be using a more vintage version of “barge,” but the history of the word bears my definition.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m attracted to the precision that the current distinction between “barge” and “container ship” affords us. But, emotionally, when I look at these beautiful vessels, I got one word in my heart, and that word is barge. When we allow ourselves to call container ships “barges,” we’re allowing our reasoned emotional truths to guide us to new and exciting linguistic horizons.