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Naming Ships

The procedures and practices involved in Navy ship naming are the products of evolution and tradition than of legislation. The names for new ships are personally decided by the Secretary of the Navy. Ship name recommendations are conditioned by such factors as the name categories for ship types now being built, as approved by the Secretary of the Navy; the distribution of geographic names of ships of the Fleet; names borne by previous ships which distinguished themselves in service; names recommended by individuals and groups; and names of naval leaders, national figures, and deceased members of the Navy and Marine Corps who have been honored for heroism in war or for extraordinary achievement in peace.

Starting at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Navy's ships were named in accordance with a system, tailored to ship types. Names of states, for example, were borne by battleships. Cruisers were named for cities while destroyers came to be named for American naval leaders and heroes, as today's destroyers are still named. Starting in 1931 submarines were named for "fish and denizens of the deep." As World War II ship construction programs included new types of ships requiring new name sources; and other classes required a modification of existing name sources to meet a perceived shortage of "appropriate" names. Mass-produced antisubmarine patrol and escort ships were named in honor of members of the naval service killed in action in World War II. Some were named for destroyers lost in the early stages of that war. Ships lost in wartime were normally honored by having their names reassigned to new construction. During World War II the names of individuals were once again assigned to aircraft carriers.

Type: World War II Current
Aircraft Carriers:
Nuclear Aircraft Carrier CVN Famous Navy ships;
Presidents;
Admiral;
Politicians
Aircraft Carrier
Fleet Aircraft Carriers, Large
CV
CVB
Famous battles;
President
Famous Navy ships;
famous battles;
President;
Places associated with aviation history
Fleet Aircraft Carrier CV Famous Navy ships;
famous battles
Light Aircraft Carrier CVL Famous Navy ships;
famous battles
Escort Carrier CVE Sounds & bays;
battles of WW II
Amphibious Assault
Amphibious Assault, Helicopter LPH Famous USMC battles
Amphibious Assault, Aviation LHA
Amphibious Assault, Dock LHD Famous aircraft carriers
Landing Ships & Craft:
Amphibious Transport, Dock LPD Cities honoring pioneers
Landing Ship, Dock LSD Historic sites
Landing Ship, Tank LST none Cities;
counties
Landing Ship, Vehicle LSV Old Monitors of USN
Battleship
Battleship BB States of the Union
Cruiser:
Large Cruiser CB Territories & possessions
Heavy Cruiser CA Cities & towns
Light Cruiser CL Cities & towns
Guided Missile Cruiser CG Distinguished Americans;
Famous battles
Nuclear Guided Missile Cruiser CGN Distinguished Americans;
Cities;
States of the Union
Destroyers:
Destroyer Escort DE Distinguished USN/USMC officers & enlisted men
Destroyer DD Distinguished USN/USMC officers & enlisted men
Guided Missile Destroyer DDG
Frigate FF
Guided Missile Frigate FFG
Submarine
Submarine SS Fish and marine creatures
Nuclear Submarine SSN Fish and marine creatures;
President;
Admiral;
Politicians;
Cities & towns;
States of the Union
Ballistic Missile Submarine SSBN Presidents;
Distinguished Americans;
States of the Union
Minecraft:
Minelayers & Coastal Minelayer CM Old monitors of USN
Light Minelayer DM
Auxiliary Minelayer ACM Obstructions
Minewsweeper AM Birds;
abstract qualities;
word of action
Coastal Minewsweeper AMc
Fast Minewsweeper DMS
Mine Countermeasures Support Ship MCS Famous USMC battle
Mine Countermeasures Ship MCM abstract qualities;
word of action
Coastal Mine Hunter MHC Birds
Patrol Craft:
Frigate PF Cities & towns
Gunboat PG
River Gunboat PR Islands
Converted Yacht PG Precious & semi-precious stones;
general words
Smaller Converted Yacht PY
Coastal Yacht PYc
Auxiliaries:
Crane Ship AB
ACS
"Crane Ship No. 1" State nicknames;
various
Destroyer Tender AD Geographical areas of the US
Ammunition Ship AE Volcanoes Volcanoes;
words denoting fire and explosives
Provision Store Ship AF Stars
Combat Stores Ship AFS Cities;
Mythological figures;
Stars
Amphibious Force Command Ship AGC
LCC
Mountains
MTB Tender AGP Mythological figures
Surveying Ship AGS Distinguished marine surveyors
Hospital Ship
Hospital Ship AH Peaceful or comforting words
Cargo Ship:
Cargo Ship AK Stars;
counties of the US
Medal of Honor recipients;
various other names
Cargo Ship, RO/RO AKR Stars;
Comedian;
Capes;
various other names
Attack Cargo Ship AKA Counties of the US
Net Cargo Ship AKN Stars;
counties of the US
General Stores Issue Ship AKS Stars
Cargo Ships and Aircraft Ferry AKV Places associated with aviation history
Net-Laying Ship
Net-Laying Ship AN Trees or old USN monitors
Oilers & Tankers:
Oiler AO Rivers Rivers;
Cities;
Famous battles;
famous ship designers or builders
Gasoline Tanker AOG
Transport Oiler AOT various names
Fast Combat Support Ship AOE Cities;
various other names
Transports:
Transport AP Presidents;
Signers of Declaration of Independence;
distinguished generals & admirals;
famous women;
historic places
Attack Transport APA Counties of the US
Evacuation Transport APH Surgeons General of the USN
Barracks Ship APL famous hotels
Aircraft Ferry APV Places associated with aviation history
Repair Ships:
Cable Repairing Ship ARC Mythological figures
Repair Ship AR Mythological figures
Landing Craft / Light Repair Ship ARL
Battle-Damage Repair Ship ARB
Heavy Hull Repair Ship ARH
Internal Combustion Engine Repair Ship ARG Islands
Salvage Vessel ARS Terms associated with marine salvage
Submarine Tenders & Rescue Vessels:
Submarine Tender AS Submarine pioneers;
mythological figures
Submarine pioneers
Submarine Rescue Vessel ASR Birds
Tugboats:
Auxiliary Tug ATA Indian Tribes
Fleet Ocean Tug ATF
Seaplane Tenders:
Seaplane Tender AV Aviation pioneers;
bays, sounds & straits
Small Seaplane Tender AVP Birds

Over time, this system has evolved beyond recognition, due in no small measure to the evolution of modern ships. Today's "destroyers" such the DDG-51 class are nearly as large as the Battleships of the early 20th Century. Although the absence of armor has reduced displacement by a factor of four, a modern "destroyer" is only a few dozen feet shorter than what passed for a capital ship for much of the 20th Century, and modern ships surely make up in firepower, speed, and sensor capabilities what they may lack in raw tonnage. Hence names that may have sufficed for ships of a particular class decades ago may no longer do justice to the magnificence of their current counterparts.

While the Navy has attempted to be systematic in naming its ships, in recent years it seems there has been a complete breakdown in any attempt to sustain a systematic practice in the name categories for ship types. The first ship named for a living person was USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in 1975. Other ships named for living people include:

This lack of discipline in distinguishing between the quick and the dead has been utterly overwhelmed in recently years by the promiscuous distribution of names among various classes of ships. One of the chief benefits of the classical naming system that flourished during the Second World War was the precision with which the name of a ship defined the ship's class, no small matter with a Navy boasting thousands of ships. The elegance of the system in which battleships were named for states, battle-cruisers for territories, large cruisers for large cities and light cruisers for small cities is difficult to exceed. But as the 600-ship Navy has evolved into the 300-ship Navy, it would seem that a presumption has arisen that one should be on a first-name basis with each ship of the fleet, and that no further introductions should be required. Half a century ago, there would be no doubt that a ship named after a state of the Union was a battleship, whereas today a ship with such a name might be whatever class of ship found favor with the Navy at the moment. This situation has reached absurd proportions with the SSN-21 class, the three units of which are named after a denizen of the deep, a state of the Union, and a President. This problem is not entirely an esthetic one, though the esthetics are the matter are difficult to ignore. As the Navy is increasingly called upon to operate in a joint environment, the services's increasingly confusing ship nomenclature will only compound interoperability problems [indeed, one may wonder how many Army and Air Force personnel are aware that there is, in principle, some system by which the Navy names its various ships].

Name: World War II Current
People
Admirals Nuclear Aircraft Carrier
Nuclear Submarine
Comedians Cargo Ship, RO/RO
Distinguished USN/USMC
officers & enlisted men
Destroyer
Destroyer Escort
Nuclear Guided Missile Cruiser
Destroyer
Guided Missile Destroyer
Frigate
Guided Missile Frigate
Distinguished Americans Guided Missile Cruiser
Politicians Nuclear Aircraft Carrier
Ballistic Missile Submarine
Presidents Fleet Aircraft Carriers, Large Nuclear Aircraft Carrier
Aircraft Carrier
Nuclear Submarine
Places
States Battleship Nuclear Guided Missile Cruiser
Ballistic Missile Submarine
Nuclear Submarine
Cities Heavy Cruiser
Light Cruiser
Nuclear Guided Missile Cruiser
Nuclear Submarine
Landing Ship, Dock
Landing Ship, Tank
Combat Stores Ship
Fast Combat Support Ship
Counties Landing Ship, Tank
Historic Sites Landing Ship, Dock Landing Ship, Dock
Things
Famous battles Fleet Aircraft Carriers, Large
Aircraft Carrier
Aircraft Carrier
Amphibious Assault, Aviation
Guided Missile Cruiser
Famous Navy ships Aircraft Carrier Nuclear Aircraft Carrier
Aircraft Carrier
Amphibious Assault, Dock

The present arbitrary ship naming system seems premised on Humpty Dumpty's contention that "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean." What is required now is a "Rectification of Names" - the fundamental Confucian idea that language should always bear the same meaning, that the meaning of words ("Names") should be the same for everyone. That is, words should not mean one thing to older people and another thing to younger people, or that the intention of politicians' statements should be the same as the meaning heard by those listening. Confucius treated "rectifying names" as the key to good government:

Zilu said, ‘The ruler of Wei awaits your taking on administration. What would be master's priority?’
The master replied, ‘Certainly--rectifying names!’ . . . . If names are not rectified then language will not flow. If language does not flow, then affairs cannot be completed. If affairs are not completed, ritual and music will not flourish. If ritual and music do not flourish, punishments and penalties will miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, people lack the wherewithal to control hand and foot. Hence a gentleman's words must be acceptable to vocalize and his language must be acceptable as action. A gentleman's language lacks anything that misses--period.(13:3)
Further Chinese elaborations of this doctrine include the prescription of Hsun Tzu written in the Third Century BC:
"Words that have a shallow basis, conduct that does not bear examining, schemes of ill repute _ the gentleman is careful how he approaches these."(Hsun Tzu, Basic Writing, translated by Burton Watson, 1963, p.156).

Absent a wholesale rectification of names, current building rates hold little promise for straightening out this mess any time soon, but a few points for attention seem unavoidable: Fortunately, the Lord looks out for fools and the United States of America, and the present situation may at least be on the road to rectification, even if the journey has been vastly lengthened by recent irresponsibility. We seem well along the way towards establishing the precedent that submarines are named after states of the Union, that destroyers are named after distinguished Navy and Marine figures, that aircraft carriers are named for Presidents, and so forth. Within a few decades, perhaps with greater discipline than has been in evidence for the past few decades, the rectification of names will be completed.

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Updated Wednesday, February 24, 1999 7:17:11 PM