“The large, beautiful physique of the Titanic turned thousands of heads.”

For the dictionary, this is a wrong word choice. For me, it’s two of them.

Webster’s Collegiate says physique means “the form or structure of a person’s body” (italics mine).

Well, but. I don’t sail, but I read about and sing about and listen avidly to songs about sailing (Moby Dick, “Drunken Sailor,” Gordon Bok, Stan Rogers), and I know that to sailors their ships are living things. What’s wrong, then, with applying a term that refers to a human body to a ship on the sea?

Maybe it’s because many of my formative years preceded the Women’s Liberation Movement, or because my youthful body-ogling was directed exclusively at males, but to me “physique” is a word more readily associated with the male body than the female. But sailors refer to their ships, those living things, as “she”—even the ones named Essex, Pequod, Morgan, or John B. So for me, the first error my student’s sentence makes is gender confusion.

The erroneous application of a human descriptor to a nautical transportation vehicle is, then, the second error.

And then, of course, to my mind’s eye come Adonis, Michelangelo’s David, and a few hunks I went to school with who will remain nameless here but who are still vivid in my fond memory. The Titanic, amazing and impressive though it may have been, can’t hold a candle to them—doesn’t even have any points of comparison. “Physique” is a laughable word choice, I’m sorry.

Would a word I more readily associate with females do any better? Could my student have chosen “statuesque,” for instance? Think Juno, the Amazons, maybe Marilyn Monroe….In the dictionary it doesn’t seem so far-fetched: “resembling a statue especially in massive dignity or shapeliness.” If something wedge-shaped can be called “shapely” (and why not? it’s a shape), then maybe a writer could have slid by with that, although I don’t recall a whole lot of statues that a steamship might resemble.

I think the student would have done better to turn the descriptor into a noun: the grandeur of the Titanic, or its elegance, or massive grace, something like that. Leave the actual body out of the whole thing, or inevitably (for me) you get a ship standing there, with or without a tiny bathing suit, hand on hip, tossing its head. And on shore, thousands of  heads turn in one big admiring gaze.

Certainly to its architects, builders, and doomed passengers the Titanic was overwhelming in size and promise. We can understand why people then and now might find it hard to describe. Another student of mine puts his finger on the reason why everyone had so much confidence in it, too:

“People thought that the Titanic was going to be indestructible because it was the greatest ship they had made so far.”

Cause-effect confusion is such a fascinating source of student writing errors that I’ll save it for another morning, although meanwhile you are free to savor this example!

Titanic, starboard view. What a physique.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““The large, beautiful physique of the Titanic turned thousands of heads.”

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