I’ve learned that if you take pictures of people in the backs of boats, you get some stern looks.
OK, ha ha. Look, at least I’m not doing that other grand old word for the back end of a boat. There’s a lot of play to be had with “back end” and poop, and you should thank me for not stepping into it. (By the way, poop for ‘back end of a boat’ traces back to Latin puppis meaning the same thing, and has no actual etymological relation to that other poop – which appears to come from an onomatopoeic word for breaking wind.)
I’m also sure that the phrase from prow to poop isn’t as popular as the synonymous from stem to stern for reasons of relative ridiculousness. Anyone who deals with children knows that the moment “poop” enters the conversation, anything stern is doomed.
But how is it that there is stern meaning ‘back of the boat’ and stern meaning ‘severe, humourless’? Let’s start with the latter one. It’s from an old Germanic root meaning ‘rigid’; it came into modern Scots as stern meaning ‘resolute, courageous’, but into modern English with a rather less inspiring sense of ‘grim’ or ‘severe’. It’s been in English for as long as there’s been an English for it to be in, first in forms like sturne and styrne and later shifting to steerne and sterne.
It could seem reasonable for the back of a ship to be strong and resolute, right? After all, it’s the place the boat is guided from. And that’s right: it is guided from there. It’s also right in that the nautical stern is directly related to starboard, as in ‘right side’. But neither has anything to do with sternness. Rather, they have to do with steering – in fact, etymologically, with steering. Stern comes via Old Norse from the same root that gives us steer; it showed up in English around the year 1400 (thanks to Norse invaders who occupied a large part of England around then), in forms like steerne and sterne. Steer had already been in the language, long enough in fact that by about 1500 steereboard – so called for the side of a smaller boat that a right-handed helmsman would steer from – was becoming starboard, inevitable subject of folk etymologies.
But of course the bigger boats were being steered from the back end. Hence the name stern, because it’s where you steer the boat – where the rudder and the wheel are. Rudder obvious once it’s pointed out, isn’t it?