Barge - bark - barque

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This page is about the sailors' word; you may want to see the page on bark, which lists other meanings.

The nouns bark and barque (pronounced the same way IPA: /bɑːrk/), like all other barks) are essentially the same, and may be used interchangeably in British English. (American English does not recognize barque.) In either spelling, it is the name of a type of 'vessel, ship or boat'. What type has changed as seafaring has developed. What may be less obvious is that it is etymologically identical with barge, although bark(/barque) and barge now label very different vessels. In nautical slang, a ship was sometimes named - affectionately - 'the barky' or 'barkey'.

Etymological note: OED notes "Barge and bark are probably identical in origin, and possibly from Celtic;... Old Irish barc."
  • Originally, a barque (the French spelling, which predominated until the sixteenth century) denoted a small ship, such as a fishing smack or pinnace.
  • Then bark/barque, in either spelling, came to be used for a large rowing boat; sometimes in the Mediterranean as the English for barca-longa, a Spanish fishing-vessel with two or three masts, each carrying a single sail.
  • Finally (and still the most common use), barque (the most common form in the nineteenth century in Britain) labelled a large sea-going sailing vessel with three or more masts, of which the furthest aft was rigged fore-and-aft, the others being square-rigged. A vessel with three (or more) masts of which all are square-rigged is a ship.
    • A barquentine (pronounced 'BARK-en-teen', IPA: /'bɑːr kən ,tiːn/) is a three-masted vessel square-rigged on the foremast only, and fore-and-aft rigged on both the others.
The spelling barque is only used in British English: in American, it is always bark.
  • Oddly, the word barge (now used for very different vessels from any of these) shares the root of barque(/bark). Both are derived from a common Romantic root barca, through Old French barge and Provençal barga from the medieval Latin barga, originally either barga or *bārica. The meaning of 'barge', like that of 'barque', changed with developments in nautical technology.
    • It seems originally to have been 'a ship's boat', used as a lighter, etc.
    • As with barca, the name was extended to a boat or small ship with sails; and this was the first use in English. Since Caxton introduced both barque and barke from 15th century French, that became the standard word for '[large]ship'
    • A barge was also an ornate ceremonial vessel, originally powered by oars and now sometimes by motor, used by royalty and dignitaries. Elizabeth I frequently travelled on the Thames in one such (as did Elizabeth II during her Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, of 670 boats, on 3rd June 2012), and it was this that Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote, of Cleopatra's magnificence:
The Barge she sat in, like a burnisht Throne,
Burnt on the water; the poop was beaten gold:
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver;
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke,
Antony and Cleopatra II, ii
      • This sense survives in the Royal Navy, where officers of flag rank have an admiral's barge for getting around harbours; HMS Britannia, the royal yacht (a seagoing vessel) carried a royal barge for the use of the royals and their guests. A 'ship's barge' was, in the days before sail was replaced by power, "the second boat of a man of war; a long narrow boat, generally with not less than ten oars, for the use of the chief officers" (OED).
      • At Oxford, Colleges maintain houseboats for the pleasure of their oarsmen (and -women) which are called barges.
    • The commonest denotation of barge, however, is far from ceremonial vessels: barges are humble work-horses of maritime transport. Barge is a common name for many forms of lighter, which is defined by OED as "a boat or vessel, usually a flat-bottomed barge, used in lightening or unloading (sometimes loading) ships that cannot be discharged ... at a wharf, etc.". Two common forms of these are
      • canal barges, flat bottomed vessels, traditionally drawn by horses, for carrying freight round the interior of the country on the purpose-built canals. Nowadays these are mostly hired out as pleasure vessels, so that tourists can travel the interior of the country peacefully;
      • sailing barges, work-horses of the carrying trade to be found mostly in the southeast of England. (The Thames barge is typical: spritsail-rigged, around 90 ft in length by 20ft of beam with a leeboard rather than a keel, they traditionally had a crew of two, and could take bulk cargoes of up to 200 tons up and down the rivers of the east coast. Although various forms of providing these with power have been tried, their day is over. The few still afloat are pleasure vessels, owned by preservationists and other enthusiasts. The Humber keel, also called a billyboy, is a not dissimilar type, though smaller and square rigged.
  • The verb 'to barge' 'to bump heavily into'. 'to push one's way through' [a crowd, etc] is a figure drawn from the clumsy movements of the heavy-laden freight barges.