2022 World Rowing Championships, Racice, Czech Republic / Maren Derlien/MyRowingPhoto.com

Welcome to part 3 in World Rowing’s “Defining Rowing” series aiming to help spectators and athletes alike brush up on some of the sport’s most used but least understood words and phrases.

Last month, we took a look at some common words for “boat”. This week we zoom in on one of those words: “scull”, which can also mean to move a boat with two oars per rower. We also take a look at the associated word “sweep”, as in moving a boat with one oar per rower.



In rowing, the primary meaning of the word “scull” is moving the boat with two oars per rower. A rower who uses two oars in this way can be called a “sculler”, and the act of propelling the boat through symmetrical movement of the sculls is called “sculling”. As mentioned last month, “scull” can also mean a rowing boat in general but in its sense of a symmetrical motion, it is more often used to mean a boat just for sculling.


“Scull” in its rowing sense may have come into English from an old word linked to washing, an activity whose back and forth scrubbing motion is similar to the symmetrical movements of sculling oars through the water. Besides the familiar form of sculling with two oars, “scull” can also mean a single oar mounted at the back of a small boat. Sculling in this way pushed the boat forward through side-to-side movements of the scull.

Scull vs. Skull

New rowers learn quickly that the word “scull” should not be confused with “skull”, another English word that sounds the same but refers to the bones of the head. Ironically, the word “skull” comes from the same root as “shell”, but “scull” seems unrelated.


Whatever the activity, a symmetrical movement seems central to the meaning of “scull”. This is clear in forms of “sculling” in a range of other sports. Examples include swimming (an in and out symmetrical movement of the hands and forearms) and ice skating (an in and out symmetrical movement of the skates).



In rowing, the word “sweep” is used for the method of moving the boat with one oar per rower. Although it is usual to use the term “rowers” for those who sweep, the term “sweeper” is sometimes used. The act of propelling a boat by this means is called “sweeping” or “sweep rowing”.


For those outside of the sport of rowing, the English word “sweep” is most often connected to the long arcing movement of a broom cleaning a floor. Like the arcing sweep of hands on a clock, the movement of an oar through the water is clearly a sweep in this sense. There is also a linked meaning of making something clean (through sweeping).


Other sports that use the term sweep include cricket’s “sweep shot” (swinging the bat in a low horizontal arc) and the similarly executed “sweep pass” in field hocky (low-to-the ground swinging hit of the ball with the stick).

Preview – Port and Starboard

As rowers know well, sweeping is done with an oar on either port or starboard, while sculling is done with an oar on both. Directional words in rowing can, however, be confusing to many—especially since rowers are facing backwards in the boat. Check back next month when we examine the meaning and history of port, starboard, bow, stern, and other direction words in the sport of rowing.

Around the World

Rowing, of course, is a global sport and even though English is World Rowing’s official language, rowers speak a multitude of languages.

How do you say “scull” or “sweep” in the language(s) used where you row? Are there more examples of symmetrical “sculling” movements or long, arching “sweeping” movements from other sports? Be sure to share on World Rowing’s official channels and some of these will be highlighted in future when we look at rowing words and phrases from around the world.