A Brief History
On July 15, 1815, Emperor Napoleon I of the French surrendered to the British aboard the HMS Bellerophon. If you are unfamiliar with the name of the ship, it comes from the greatest Greek hero of ancient times (until Hercules). Naming a ship after a mighty hero sure sounds better than naming one after some pencil necked politician. The British have always found some pretty nifty names for their warships and so have the US Navy, at least sometimes. Here we list 10 of the impressive, intimidating, just plain cool names for ships, and for each we will add a lame, not so rough and tumble name of a ship for contrast. By the way, Bellerophon was converted to a prison ship and aptly renamed HMS Captivity (no originality with that one). Note: The year listed is either the launch or commissioning year.
10. HMS Discovery, 1600.
Although not intimidating, the name is so appropriate for a survey and exploration ship that we had to include it. There have been 11 Royal Navy ships of this name, each connoting a spirit of adventure and, you guessed it, discovery.
A kind of lame named exploration ship was the HMS Beagle, 1820, of Charles Darwin fame, just one of several British ships by that name. Understand that I love Beagles and think they are great dogs, and although the name is cute, it does not evoke any sort of enthusiasm or excitement for a ship on a journey of, you guessed it again, discovery!
9. Adventure Galley, 1695.
Another nifty name for a pirate ship (Capt. Kidd’s), the name implies swashbuckling excitement. The ship started out as a pursuer of pirates, and ended up attacking ships allied with Britain, earning Capt. Kidd a trip to the gallows.
A pirate ship with a not so exciting name was the Fancy, 1694, originally known as the Charles II, a 46 gun privateering ship. The pirate crew made modifications to make the ship faster than the ships it preyed upon, making it feared, but not because of the lame name.
8. USS Intrepid, 1943.
Another Essex class aircraft carrier, the name of this ship means fearless, bold, brave and the like, apropos of a warship going in harm’s way. Many of the Essex class ships had relatively good names in this way.
Then you have the USS Glacier, 1943, (CVE-33), an escort carrier named after a large lump of ice that moves about as slowly as anything on earth.
7. Queen Anne’s Revenge, 1710.
A ship with “revenge” in the title implies bad things for those that oppose her, and in this case, the ship was the pirate Blackbeard’s main ship and appropriately named.
Then we have “Black Sam” Bellamy’s ship, the Whydah, 1716. This goofy sounding name is apparently the name of a bird, but the name is actually taken from the name of a slave port, Ouidah (Benin), as the ship was originally a slaver.
6. USS Nautilus, 1954.
Named after Capt. Nemo’s great submarine from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this ship (SSN-571) was not the first US ship or even sub with the name, but is by far the most famous. Like the mythical ship, this one was an absolute marvel for its time, able to stay under water for far longer than any submarine before it.
The US Navy had a habit of naming submarines after fish, which is okay as long as the fish is some sort of ferocious predator. Naming a submarine after some wimpy fish largely eaten as prey by other fish is lame indeed, and although there are many subs cursed with such a lame name, we will cite USS Bluegill, USS Sunfish, and USS Bream (all basically the same thing) as bad examples of fish names.
5. USS Wasp/USS Hornet, 1940.
Both of these aircraft carriers were Yorktown class ships, and their names appropriately implied that they could “sting” you from the air. Both were sunk early in the war, the Hornet being the last “full size” US carrier ever sunk. Other US ships have carried the names.
In contrast we have the USS Shangri-la, 1944, another aircraft carrier (CV-38) that served well in World War II through Viet Nam, but was named after a fictional paradise. Not an intimidating name at all for such a powerful warship.
4. HMS Dreadnought, 1906.
Although several British ships have carried this name, it is the revolutionary battleship that began the golden era of modern battleships that is the most famous. The name means “afraid of nothing” and that intimidating moniker was appropriate when the ship was first commissioned, as it made all other battleships obsolete.
A not so intimidating name for a British battleship was HMS Erin, 1914, a ship built for the Turkish Navy but kept by Britain due to the outbreak of World War I. Presumably named for the island of Ireland, it sounds like a common girl’s name and is not scary at all.
3. USS Enterprise, 2025.
Other US Navy ships have borne this name, and such a fine name that it was chosen as the name of the “starship” that was the centerpiece of the Star Trek television show was given this name. Even the first Space Shuttle was named Enterprise. For some reason the name really resonates with Americans, kind of implying a dashing, daring, adventurous cachet.
Compare that to USS Carl Vinson, 1982, (CVN-70), a Nimitz class carrier. No disrespect to the man it is named after, but the guy was a congressman. Although Vinson was a strong supporter of the US Navy, his name does not inspire fear in the belly of an enemy. The same would apply to any other ship named after a politician.
2. HMS Ajax/HMS Achilles, 1935.
British light cruisers of the Leander class, these 2 ships carried the names of mighty warriors of the Trojan War. Their names put the enemy on notice that in these ships they had a fearsome opponent.
On the other hand, the HMS Leander, 1933, the namesake of this class of cruisers, was named after a mythical Greek priestess of Aphrodite. Leander was the girlfriend of Hero, and Hero would have been a more “heroic” sounding name!
1. HMS Victory, 1765.
One of the most famous ships of all time, this 104 gun first rate ship of the line was one of the most powerful sailing ships ever built and was a major player in the Napoleonic Wars. At her greatest battle, the Battle of Trafalgar, the renowned Lord Admiral Nelson was killed aboard Victory. Victory is the oldest warship in the world that is still commissioned. Even the name inspires thoughts of…Victory!
In contrast, we have the USS Carp, 1912, a submarine (SS-20). If you are going to pick a fish to name a ship after, it probably should not be a lumbering vegetarian that is largely considered a garbage fish in the nation that named the ship!
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think is the coolest name for a ship? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Pengelly, Colin. HMS Bellerophon. Pen and Sword Maritime, 2014.