Do the words "port" and "harbor" mean the same in marine terms? I looked these two words up in the NOAD dictioanary, and found:

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Clearly, each one can have their own meaning – harbor can be used figuratively, for example. Also, port seems to be more focused on where you might find goods being imported and exported, while harbor seems to focus more on geographical shelter.

However, the part I'm most confused about is the part I've put in red. That makes it look like the word port could always be used in place of harbor.

Could all harbors also be considered ports, or vice-versa? The dictionary definition of port implies that the two words can be used to mean exactly the same thing. Is there something else I should know before I start using the terms interchangeably?

  • No; port is the opposite of starboard; harbor is not.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 16:14
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    On hold, hmm. The linguistic interaction between these two words is much deeper than a dictionary! I offered significant edits to the answer that were apparently swallowed up by the closure vote.
    – ScotM
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 0:51
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    @ScotM - In this case, I believe the closure vote was due in part to a slew of little-researched questions in a small span of time. (We try to get users out of the habit of using us instead of a dictionary.) I'll edit this question to make it more exemplary of a question that wouldn't get closed, and then reopen it. I hope you'll take the time to add what I think might be an informed and interesting answer.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 9:17
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    Incidentally, it's funny: when I include research, the question often changes and becomes more focused, because I no longer need to ask about the things that are inherently obvious. In this case, consider how harbor can be used more figuratively than port. That's clear from the dictionary, so there's no need to waste time explaining that in an answer. The question is no longer, "Do the words mean the same thing?" but, "Can I use port in place of harbor?" People who answer must think more deeply, too. That's why we want O.P.'s to include such research when they ask the question.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 9:31
  • Makes sense, @J.R.
    – ScotM
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 16:52

2 Answers 2


Port is used in two senses in marine/nautical terms: the left side of a ship (as J.R. points out) and a place where a ship might stop and dock (could be an area of a city or the entire city/region could be referred to as a port). A port in this sense is usually an area where ships are loaded and unloaded of cargo.

A harbor is a place where a port might be found. It is generally a place where larger ships may safely approach land (no large rocks or underwater reefs) and where the waves and currents are calmer. This sense is sometimes used metaphorically for other safe places.

He harbored his law-breaking brother in his house


This house was a welcome harbor for weary souls.

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    Agreed - I can think of only usage idiom with "port" which carries the sense safety: "Any port in a storm." Other than that, the port is the commercial function of some harbors. Not all harbors are ports, and not all ports have harbors. (e.g. offshore oil and gas ports: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisiana_Offshore_Oil_Port )
    – Adam
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 17:09
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    Or to put it another way, "harbor" is a description of the natural geography, while "port" is something made by people. Well, you can create an "artificial harbor" in the same way that you can create an "artificial lake", but still, "harbor" describes the dirt and rocks and shape of the land, while "port" means that there are docks and piers and often associated facilities.
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 18:08
  • Technically, @Jay, a harbor is not a matter of natural geography, but of human enhancements in bays, channels, and rivers, which are natural maritime havens.
    – ScotM
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 19:52
  • @ScotM Hmm, are you speaking of a technical definition? Because for ordinary definitions, I checked a number of dictionaries, and all defined a harbor in terms of a place that is safe for ships because the water is deep enough and it is protected from winds and waves. The Wikipedia article, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harbor, makes an explicit distinction between natural and artificial harbors, similar to what I was trying to say. If there is such a thing as a "natural harbor", than that rather implies that a harbor is not by definition a man-made construct.
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 21:46
  • I see haven (in the nautical/marine sense) as equivalent to harbor. Haven is used in other more metaphorical senses. ex: "This park is a haven for endangered bears"
    – eques
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 21:50

The firm connection between ports and harbors arises from the human activity to enhance the convenience of natural havens used for shipping purposes. Early sea traders used bays, islands, and river mouths to protect themselves from violent weather and currents. When they found a safe place suitable for trade, they would develop that place for future trading.

In a port, the specific place where goods and people are unloaded from a boat is generally referred to as the docks. The entire city or town, which has been developed around the docks, is the port:



A town or city with a harbor where ships load or unload, especially one where customs officers are stationed.

Emphasis mine

Which came first, the city or the port? In 2010, Port Shanghai, China, overtook Singapore and Hong Kong as the busiest cargo port in the world. It was just a tiny agricultural village at the mouth of the Yangtze river until the Qing Dynasty developed it as a port between 1600 and 1900. It was a very desirable port for sea traders for two reasons:

  1. The natural shelter of the Hangzhou Bay provided safe haven for ships.
  2. The navigable Yangtze river provided easy access to interior commerce.


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The dock infrastructure and the port city of Dover, England, the busiest passenger port in the world, also grew together near a large safe natural haven. In fact, most large coastal cities can attribute their current location to the maritime convenience of early sea traders, who chose safe natural havens for loading and unloading their cargo and passengers.

The etymology of port is rooted in the image of moving from one place to another:


Old English port "harbor, haven," reinforced by Old French port "harbor, port; mountain pass;"

Old English and Old French words both from Latin portus "port, harbor," originally "entrance, passage," figuratively "place of refuge, assylum,"

from PIE *prtu- "a going, a passage," from root **per*- (2) "to lead, pass over"

(cognates: Sanskrit parayati "carries over;" Greek poros "journey, passage, way," peirein "to pierce, run through;" Latin porta "gate, door," portare "passage," peritus "experienced;" Avestan peretush "passage, ford, bridge;" Armenian hordan "go forward;" Welsh rhyd "ford;" Old Church Slavonic pariti "to fly;" Old English faran "to go, journey," Old Norse fjörðr "inlet, estuary").

Eventually, port becomes a synonym for harbor:


1.1 A harbor:

Port is a sensible synonym for harbor because the locations that serve to move goods between land and sea have natural land structures providing safe haven for ships to load and unload. Later, manmade port structures enhance the safety and convenience of the natural haven, turning it into a harbor:


  1. A place on the coast where ships may moor in shelter, especially one protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial structures:

Bays, islands and river mouths may provide natural protection and convenience for sea traders, but the word harbor emphasizes the manmade enhancements.

The etymology is rooted in the image of lodging and shifts to refuge:

"lodging for ships,"

early 12c., probably from Old English herebeorg "lodgings, quarters,"

from here "army, host" (see harry) + beorg "refuge, shelter" (related to beorgan "save, preserve;" see bury);

perhaps modeled on Old Norse herbergi "room, lodgings, quarters."

Sense shifted in Middle English to "refuge, lodgings," then to "place of shelter for ships."

This sense of safe place is included in the formal definition and is very much connected to the metaphorical use of harbor.

1.1 A place of refuge:

Our orphanage is a harbor for children in distress.


This house was a welcome harbor for weary souls.

Although they are deeply interconnected by the practical activities of shipping, the word port emphasizes the commercial element of moving people and goods from one place to another, while the word harbor emphasizes the safe place for ships to stay. The two ideas fit hand in glove.

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