Those of us who peruse a lot of boating magazines and boat brochures can’t help but notice there’s a sexual controversy simmering out there that’s shaking the marine industry to the very core. No, it’s not sail boaters versus power boaters; inland cruisers versus the offshore set; nor whether cats or dogs make for the best onboard pets, or why it’s always a man at the helm in the magazine cover shots. It’s a potential no-holes-barred linguistic donnybrook pitting those who would feminize the main living space on a boat by calling it the “salon” against those who would masculinize it, calling it the “saloon.”
Indeed, you’ve probably noticed that boating magazines use the two terms interchangeably from one article or ad to the next, thus throwing the reader into a quagmire of transgender indecision and fitful consternation over which terminology is actually correct. It’s not just a minor matter of “poe-tay-toe”/“pah-tah-toe” or “toe-may-toe”/“toe-mah-toe,” for that’s simply annunciation. What we’re talking about here is a fundamental definition and codification of your boats primary living space as male or female. We all agree the galley is the galley, the head is the head, a stateroom is a stateroom. But salon or saloon? It’s more frustrating than a leak over your bunk!
Perhaps some history may be useful. With the exception of the Roman’s and their pleasure barges, it wasn’t all that long ago not more than a century or so in factthat boats were used almost exclusively for commerce. Up until that point, onboard nomenclatures and colloquialisms for the various cabins, decks and components were pretty much standardized throughout the world. The rich folks of the day used to cross oceans onboard large sailing vessels where luxuries and amenities were few. Passengers were second to cargo in those days, space was at a premium and lounging areas below deck were hardly existent. Arriving at their destinations, the travelers checked in to posh hotels to shake off the Spartan rigors of the voyage.
Due to the still prevalent Elizabethan influences upon society back then, certain rules between the sexes were established in the hotels, namely that there were gathering rooms for women, then others for men. The reasons were several, but mainly all stemming from the fact that men wanted to be with men and talk men stuff, away from the women. Much as exists today (with the occasional metro-sexual male getting a facial and manicure), there were places where women gathered when getting preened and primped, and those places were known as salons. Then when steel and steam became widely and readily available, luxurious ocean liners which were basically floating hotels, came into their own. The language moved from shore to ship and as such those areas where women gathered likewise came to be known as “salons,” even if no one was having her hair coiffed.
Ever since men first learned to drink, smoke, gamble, tell dirty jokes and talk politics and business they’ve had establishments to go to to do so. The most well known American example of such establishments were those swinging-door western bars more commonly called saloons, where only women of questionable repute frequented. That same nomenclature came to be applied in the hotels, then likewise onboard the great ocean liners of the day. Remember the scene in the movie Titanic when, after the big fancy dinner, the men all retired to another room and left Leonardo DiCaprio with the women (where he probably belonged)? Well, those rich guys all strolled off to the ship's saloon.
When turn-of-the-century tycoons started building their pleasure yachts, as was the case onboard ocean liners there was more than enough room to have both a salon and a saloon so it never really became an issue. But where does that leave us in today’s unisex world where the average mid-sized cruiser has only one main living area where both X and Y chromosome shipmates congregate? Salon or saloon?!
When pressed on the subject, one male editor of a national sail boating magazine replied, “A salon is a place where women get their hair done. A saloon is the proper, historical seaworthy and nautical name for… well, the saloon.” Then a female power boat editor similarly responded, “We use saloon instead of salon for a pretty simple reason: as our founding editor once said, a salon is where you get your hair done, while a saloon is where you enjoy a drink or two. But here’s the tricky part: We actually pronounce ‘saloon’ like ‘salon.’ No official explanation for that one, other than the assumption that the founding editor didn’t want it to sound low-class/crass.”
Hmmm… We’re getting somewhere now.
The venerable boating bible, Chapman’s, doesn’t touch the subject, while another nautical reference tome, the Cornell Maritime Press Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge, lists no salon, only saloon as “…the main cabin…,” but then acknowledges it’s root derivation stemming from salon.
We’re closer now, but still not there yet.
Perhaps Webster’s dictionary can play the role of final arbiter in this controversy:
sa.lon’ n. A large reception hall or room for receiving guests, especially a public room in a hotel or on a ship; a saloon. Agh!!
But then, the definition for saloon (the very next word listed in fact): sa.loon n. Any large room or hall designed for receptions, exhibitions, entertainment, etc;… specifically, the main social cabin of a passenger ship.
So, it’s not entirely definitive but in the end, it would seem that other than for the ease of eloquence and the audible sophistication of pronouncing one less “O”, the saloons have it… and please allow me to invite the ladies in and we’ll ALL drink to that!