May 20, 2019 | Written by M Nat Leon

Word Fight: Harbor vs. Port

A medieval looking harbor.

The sea has been a integral part of human history. Look at the common roots of language and you will find this importance in the sea, for nearly every language has a unique word to call this endless expanse of water: Mar. Sea. Bahr. Itsaosa. Umi. Hǎi. Kaṭa. In some cultures, we are born of the sea. Today, I want to present the differences between two important sea-words: Harbor and Port.

Definitions & Key Difference

Google Dictionary defines Harbor as:

  1. A place on the coast where vessels may find shelter, especially one protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial structures.
  2. Keep (a thought or feeling, typically a negative one) in one’s mind, especially secretly.
  3. Give a home or shelter to.

The definition of Port reads as follows:

  1. A town or city with a harbor where ships load or unload, especially one where customs officers are stationed.
  2. An inland town or city whose connection to the coast by a river or other body of water enables it to act as a port.
  3. The side of a ship or aircraft that is on the left when one is facing forward.
  4. An opening in the side of a ship for boarding or loading.
  5. Turn (a ship or its helm) to port.

The difference in verb meanings is quite clear, so you are probably looking for the difference of these words when they are used to describe a location. Both words, in colloquial usage, describe a place to bring in a ship for transferring cargo, maintenance, and so on. Harbor carries connotations of home, safety and protectiveness, while Port emphasises the technical and commercial nature of such a location. So while you can technically use either word, you might be able to evoke certain associations in your readers by choosing the word that fits best.

Considering Etymology

Harbor has the following word origins:

  1. Late Old English herebeorg ‘shelter, refuge’, herebeorgian ‘occupy shelter’,
  2. of Germanic origin; related to Dutch herberge and German herberge,
  3. of French auberge ‘inn’.

Whereas Port has this word origin:

  1. Old English, from Latin portus ‘haven, harbor’, reinforced in Middle English by Old French
  2. from Latin porta ‘gate’; reinforced in Middle English by Old French porte

English is in a unique situation, linguistically. It’s been forged over the intermixing of several different cultures, all of which brought words from their native language and added them into the present day vernacular.

Words in English hold their meaning given by the origin language of the word and how the word was first perceived by those early speakers of Anglo-ish. The differences here are subtle. Before we dive into further considerations about Harbor vs Port, I would like to ask you something. Inquire, if you will. Nay, Interrogate. Ask, Inquire, Interrogate. They all mean ‘to question’. Ask is a word that’s been in English for most of its life and therefore holds a calm, polite, homely feel. Inquire was given to English during a time of the French rule of England and comes from enquerre, therefore gives up a more intense, stately feeling to the word, if not invoking a sense of espionage. And finally Interrogate comes directly from the original Latin, interrogare, at a time when Rome’s influence extended to Hadrian’s Wall and therefore has a more militarist or threatening feel to the word as men were captured and ‘questioned’ during Roman raids.

These same origin principles can be applied to Harbor vs Port. You see above that Harbor comes from the much older Germanic origins of English and therefore has a double meaning of safety, of being more natural and quaint. One can harbor (secret) feelings of love. And on the other side of the spectrum we get the word Port, which comes to us from way of French, breathing an air of aristocracy to the word. We could also argue that Port comes from Porto, ‘door’ or ‘gateway’, and that a Port is seen as an entrance to a new world. Any port in the storm. Of course Port does have an alternative German meaning, but that’s applied to wine and drinking and not the cities of the sea.

So, perhaps prefer Harbor when you want to emphasise the safety and quaintness of a location, but prefer Port when you treat the location as a gateway for ships to transfer goods, especially in a commercial setting.

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