Navy vessel naming is more a process of tradition than of legislation. The Secretary of the Navy decides the final names of new vessels but vessel name recommendations are influenced by such factors as:

  • Name categories for vessel types now being built, as approved by the Secretary of the Navy
  • Distribution of geographic names of vessels of the Fleet
  • Names borne by previous vessels that distinguished themselves in service;
  • Names recommended by individuals and groups
  • 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.

On 13 October 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the first ship of a new navy for the United Colonies, as they were then known. The ships of the Continental Navy, and of the Navy later established under the Federal Constitution, were not named in any strictly categorical manner.

Ship names in the Continental Navy and the early Federal navy came from a variety of sources. The first ship of the new Continental Navy was named Alfred in honor of Alfred the Great, the King of Wessex who is credited with building the first English naval force. Another ship was named Raleigh to commemorate the seagoing exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh. Some ships honored early patriots and heroes, such as the  Hancock and General Greene. Others commemorated the young nation's ideals and institutions, such as the Constitution, Independence, and Congress. A 74-gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1782 and donated to the French Navy on completion, was named America. A Revolutionary War frigate was named Bourbon in honor of the King of France, whose alliance would further the cause of American independence. Other ship names honored American places, such as Boston and Virginia. Small warships, such as brigs and schooners, bore a variety of names. Some were named for positive character traits, such as Enterprise and Diligent). Others had classical names, such as Syren and Argus, or names of small creatures with a potent sting, such as Hornet and Wasp.

By the early 1900s, Navy vessels were named in accordance with vessel types. For examples, battleships were named for states, cruisers were named for cities, and destroyers were named for American naval leaders and heroes. Starting in 1931, submarines were named for fish and denizens of the deep. World War II vessel construction included new types of vessels, which required new naming sources, and there was a perceived shortage of "appropriate" names for existing types of vessels. Antisubmarine patrol and escort ships were named in honor of name service members killed in action during the war. Vessels lost in wartime were normally honored by having their names reassigned to new construction. During the war, names of individuals were once again assigned to aircraft carriers.

As vessels evolved, such as destroyers becoming nearly as large as previous battleships but with less armor and less displacement, the naming conventions also evolved. Modern war ships make up loss in displacement with increased firepower, speed, and detection capabilities, so their names have evolved to describe them better.

The naming of Navy vessels has become even more political in recent years. The first ship named for a living person was the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) in 1975. Since then other vessels have been named for living people, such as USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709), USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), USNS Bob Hope (T-AKR-300), and USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23).

Each ship type was distinguished by a type code of two to four letters; pennant numbers were always assigned consecutively within a ship type. American ship classes were always named after the "name ship" -- the first of the class counted by low pennant number. A shorthand form of class name was the pennant number of the name ship.

Following the British tradition, once a ship had been formally named (at the launching of the hull), the name was normally not changed. Before this formal naming, names were often shuffled around during construction.

Vessels, including Navy vessels, have traditionally been referred to using the female pronouns she or her. Nowadays, this is considered politically incorrect and those in politics or the higher echelons of the military establishment use the pronoun it when refereeing to vessels. However, sailors, especially those who serve at sea, still refer to vessels using female pronouns.

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