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Why Are Submarines Called Boats – Get the Facts Here!

Written by Everett Bledsoe / Fact checked by Brain Bartell

why are submarines called boats

Why are submarines called boats when they are enormous and perform in ways no other vessel can?

The term “boat” has been used historically to refer to a wide range of water vessels, including those built for transportation, exploration, and even combat.

Linguistically, the word “boat” has become embedded as a synonym for any vessel that travels on or below the water’s surface. Besides, the original submarines were made in small sizes, thus referred to as “boat.”

This article explores the historical and linguistic precedents for this curious reference to the submarine. We will also explore the cultural and technological roots that tie these underwater vessels to their maritime ancestry.

About the Submarine


Submarines are boats that can function autonomously under the water. These naval vessels can descend and surface using diving planes and ballast tanks filled with water and air.

Submarines can be divided into two categories: those used for military and civilian purposes.

  • Military submarines are often quite large, can carry over a hundred people, and are used to patrol ocean waters and attack enemy ships.
  • Meanwhile, civilian submarines are used for tourism, marine research, salvage operations, explorer missions, and infrastructure inspection and can be customized for unique operations.

Strangely, subs of any size and function are called boats. As we have mentioned earlier, this fascinating allusion has roots in history and language.

1. History of Submarine “boat”  


Despite the apparent distinctions between submarines and conventional surface vessels, the term “boat” is frequently used to refer to submarines.

  • This naming scheme was likely influenced by nautical language and dates back to the early days of submarine development.

Submarines have been called “boats” for a long time, but the precise historical reasons for this name change are unclear.

  • The historical development of naval jargon can be traced back to using the term “boat” for submarines. A “ship” is a larger vessel designed for long-term operations at sea. In comparison, a “boat” is a smaller vessel.

Due to their smaller size and shorter range when compared to surface ships, submarines were more commonly referred to as boats when they were first developed.

During the nineteenth century, the first functional submarines were created. The first submarines, like the Turtle and the Nautilus, were tiny, one-man vessels.

Yet, for a single passenger, these early submarines were still quite large and cumbersome that they were more commonly referred to as “submarine boats” or “underwater boats.”

Additionally, the United States Navy had a major impact on the widespread adoption of the term “boat” for submarines. The “submarine classification” as boats by the United States Navy started in the early 20th century.

This usage most likely developed from the peculiar customs of the submarine force within the navy, because they referred to submarines as “boats.”

It’s important to note that the word “boat” is not always used to refer to submarines in all languages. Some languages have words for submarines that literally mean “underwater vessel” or “submarine.”

Although there is no one place to find a comprehensive history of how submarines came to be referred to as “boats,” the preceding details come from various books, articles, and websites devoted to naval history.   

2. Language: Submarine as “boat”


For linguistic reasons, sailors have always used “boat” to refer to submarines.

Submariners and sailors alike have their slang and jargon; for example, the term “boat” has come to be universally understood and used to refer to submarines.

In naval terminology, the word “boat” is sometimes used interchangeably with “submarine” to refer to any watercraft used by a ship. This is in reference to the historical precedent in nautical language for designating particular vessels by name.

For instance, “ship” is usually reserved for larger ships. Meanwhile, “boat” is more commonly associated with the navy’s small boats or vessels designed for certain tasks.

Thus, people have become accustomed to this reference and concept. In less formal or non-technical settings, calling submarines “boats” also encourages clearer exchanges and reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings.

Is a Submarine a Boat?


A submarine is, in fact, a type of boat. Submarines are vessels capable of submerging and emerging from the water’s surface. Unlike more conventional boats, this one can go under the sea and steer its way about.

Submarines are considered boats according to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs), which are international laws and regulations for safe navigation. Submarines are simply another type of vessel in the eyes of the COLREGs.

The United States Navy, which has a large submarine fleet, also officially refers to submarines as “boats” Submarines are usually referred to as “boats” among sailors.

Therefore, a submarine does qualify as a type of boat. The fact that it can both float on the water’s surface and dive beneath it sets it apart as a unique form of a boat.


The curious question of why are submarines called boats does have rather complex answers. The history is not quite concrete, yet the term “boat” for submarine has become a linguistic convention.  

In the case of submarines, the historical usage, nautical traditions, and linguistic convenience have contributed to the continued use of the term “boat” to refer to these underwater vessels.

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