There is something about summer that is synonymous with vacations. For whatever the reason, it is nice to get away for a while. Of course, if National Lampoon’s Vacation has taught us anything, or, if, Heaven forbid, you have your own horrible experiences to remember, you are well aware that many aspects of a “vacation” can be anything but fun and relaxing. Unfortunately, some of those aspects – like obnoxious relatives or that kid kicking the back of your seat – simply can’t be changed, but, for everything else, you might be able to get some relief by calling today’s word, steward.
Coming from the Old English stiward/stigweard, our word is a compounding of the words stig, meaning ‘hall or part of a house’, and weard, meaning ‘guard’. First found around the year 1000, and noted in Thomas Wright and Richard Wülcker 1884 work, Anglo-Saxon & Old English Vocabularies, “Discoforus, discifer, uel stiweard”, a steward literally implied someone who exercised control over a household domestic affairs.
Even several hundred years later, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Prologue) (c1405) mentions a manciple who could outwit a dozen in a household who were “Fit to be stewards of both rent and land of any lord in England”.
With people becoming more mobile and the Age of Exploration soon beginning, our word would by mid-century begin to be applied to transportation, notably on ships to denote an officer who controlled the supply and basic function of the ship: an anonymous poem c1450 called The Pilgrims Sea-Voyage mentions: “‘Pull in the wartake!’ ‘it shall be done.’ ‘Steward! cover the board at once.’”
A century later, came out the first job description to specify the steward’s tasks of delivering food and provisions under the captain’s instructions (1585, John Smith, An accidence; or, The path-way to experience. necessary for all young sea-men: “The Steward is to deliver out the victual, according to the Captain’s directions”)
Nowadays, the cruise ship steward job title applies to any attendant who is part of the housekeeping staff on board a cruise ship, often with defining word indicating rank or special function, as bath-, cabin-, deck-, table-steward; captain’s steward, chief steward, paymaster’s steward, etc.
Though the current stock of cruise ships, many boasting capacities of well over 6,000 people and a gross tonnage of more than 225,000 tons, are a far cry from the days of caravels and carracks, the use of the term “steward” has remained. Actually, considering that the number of people taking river and ocean cruises has increased by almost 10 million, from 17.2 million in 2009 to an estimated 27.2 million in 2018, and with industry revenue expected to grow by nearly EUR 20 billion in the next decade (based on 2017 numbers), it is arguable that, in being the person who is largely responsible for planning and caring for customer needs, stewards are more important than ever. So, even though you may not need (or be able to afford) a steward to handle the domestic affairs of your sensibly-sized estate, it is nice to be able to rely on the services of some professional stewards during your cruise voyage.