I’ve got a hypothetical question. I’m building this boat. It’s getting bigger and bigger. At what point does it become a ship? –Jack Skiles, San Antonio, Texas

This question is exceedingly deep, Jack; you must have spent more time in the tavern than usual. It falls into the same cosmic line of inquiry, I think, as the question of when a hill becomes a mountain. But first things first. Among sailing vessels, the distinction between ships and boats is simple: a ship is a square-rigged craft with at least three masts, and a boat isn’t. With regard to motorized craft, a ship is a large vessel intended for oceangoing or at least deep-water transport, and a boat is anything else.

Ah, but to be a sailor is to be a master of nuance. To the preceding we must add the following provisos: (1) “ship” is a term to be bestowed sparingly, like a title of nobility, whereas (2) “boat” can be applied to just about anything that floats, has sides to keep out the water, and is capable of propulsion. In addition, (3) a thing can be a ship or it can be a boat, but it can’t be both.

What it all boils down to is this: when in doubt, it’s a boat. Many commercial fishing craft, for example, are sizable oceangoing vessels, yet they’re almost invariably called boats. Similarly for submarines, built by General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division. The Great Lakes are pretty deep, and one sees certain large vessels on them that to all appearances are ships, but in fact said vessels are commonly called ore boats.

Now let’s turn to the hill/mountain dichotomy, which is a bit knottier. Looking again in our Random House unabridged (1969 edition), we learn that a hill is “a natural elevation of the earth’s surface, smaller than a mountain,” while a mountain is “a natural elevation of the earth’s surface rising more or less abruptly to a summit, and attaining an altitude greater than that of a hill.” In other words, a hill is smaller than a mountain and a mountain is taller (and steeper) than a hill. Big freaking help.

Recognizing the inadequacy of the foregoing, the editors of the Random House dictionary took another stab at the problem in their second edition (1987). Hill stays the same, but a mountain is now a natural elevation, etc, “attaining an altitude greater than 2,000 feet.” This is a commendable attempt at precision, but it runs into trouble on the very next page, where we find a list of “Notable Mountain Peaks of the World.” Mount Carmel, Israel, checks in at a paltry 1818 feet. Many of the so-called mountains in the Ozarks are similarly stunted. Perhaps we should say that anything over 2,000 feet is automatically a mountain, but peaks under 2,000 feet may qualify if they (1) are steep, (2) have rocky sides, or (3) have the word “Mount” in their names. It’s not the most rigorous definition in the world, but right now it’s the best we’ve got.

Why is pound abbreviated “lb.”? –Janice, Dallas

“Lb.” stands for libra, the basic unit of Roman weight, from which our present-day pound derives. The libra weighed a little under 12 ounces avoirdupois. Speaking of ounces, “oz.” stands for the Italian onza, ounce, and came into use in the 15th century. Ounce, interestingly, comes from the Latin uncia, a 12th, which is also the source of the term “inch.” At one time there were 12 ounces to the pound, a usage that still survives in the system of troy weight used by jewelers and goldsmiths. Sixteen oz. to the lb. didn’t arrive on the scene until the 13th or 14th century. Pound derives from the Latin pondo, “by weight.” As if you didn’t know.


“ABSTEMIOUSLY” HAS THE SAME VOWEL CHARACTERISTICS AS “FACETIOUSLY” [i.e., it contains all the vowels just once in the right order, as discussed August 19]. –STEPHEN SCAPPA, BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA

Thanks for the info, Stosh, but it was hardly necessary to send it Western Union (no kidding). Still, I appreciate the thought.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.