Greater Greater Washington

I say brook, you say run: Waterway names vary regionally

Ever wondered how the names of waterways vary from state to state? An interesting map by Derek Watkins shows the differences in waterway toponyms in the United States.


Map by Derek Watkins.

The patterns of settlement across the country give reason to the difference. From the brooks of New England and the kills of New Netherland York to the bayous of New France Louisiana and the rios of New Mexico, the variety of names adds flavor to a diverse nation.

The stark differences, especially in the Mid-Atlantic and New England show how varied the histories of those regions are, despite their size.

The map shows creeks and rivers in gray, since those names are so common nationwide. Though sometimes things get mixed up. Consider Philadelphia's Schuylkill River: It's a kill and a river.

Crossposted at The Straight Line.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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I did notice moving here from central Va. that everything was called a "run". Now I have proof I guess of more danged Yankee influence. ;)

by Canaan on Sep 13, 2011 3:39 pm • linkreport

really interesting. But why are "creek", "crick", "spring" and "river" left off? It seems that if "rio" is included "river" ought to be, and if "stream" is included "creek" and "spring" ought to be (and "crick"). "Creek" is used very commonly around the Chesapeake as well as in the upper midwest/Great Lakes, but to describe very different bodies of water. In the Chesapeake a creek describes a brakish small arm of the estuary whereas in the upper midwest/Great Lakes it describes a small running freshwater body on the surface, generally smaller than a river but bigger than a spring.

by Tina on Sep 13, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

What about creek?

by Tim on Sep 13, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

Very interesting and very beautiful.

How does this map out in DC?

-Rock Creek
-Broad Branch
-Foundry Branch
-Soapstone Creek
-Oxon Creek
-Piney Branch
-Fenwick Branch
-Tiber Creek

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 13, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

@Tina, @Tim:
To quote from the last paragraph of the post:
"The map shows creeks and rivers in gray, since those names are so common nationwide."

Making maps work is sometimes a challenge. The creator of this map says that including creeks and rivers would make the rest of the map harder to read.

Not everything is shown, either. There are a cluster of "coulees" in the northern Rockies. Those aren't shown, either.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 13, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

Interesting.

I'd like to see the map without 'river' and 'creek' omitted, to see if some regions use those common terms more frequently than others, or if the changing density of the regional terms is merely a function of the density of applicable bodies of water. Obviously, the geography changes as you move across the country.

Zooming in on the full size version, you can see some faint grey lines that must be streams and creeks, but there seem to be far more of them in the Midwest and Great Plains than the rest of the country - and if that's really the case, then those are also regional differences that should be accounted for instead of brushed aside as the most common terms.

I'd also note that while somewhat of a linguistic exercise, there are some specific geographic differences between some of these items. A bayou is not exactly a completely synonymous term with a stream, for example.

by Alex B. on Sep 13, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

agree w/Alex B. If River and Creek (and Crick?) wre included the Great Lakes, Greta plains and CA would be as colorful as the east coast, SE, South and SW.

by Tina on Sep 13, 2011 4:01 pm • linkreport

Rio Grande River is also a bit mixed up.

Leaving out creek/river is highly deceptive; it then turns out there isn't much regional distinction.

Swamp isn't really a waterway either, although I suspect you can travel on one. Good luck traveling on an arroyo out west.

by charlie on Sep 13, 2011 4:09 pm • linkreport

Somewhat related, when riding my bicycle across Kentucky a few years back I noticed many towns with "lick" in the name like "Paint Lick". Now, I know that a "lick" is generally a place where you find salt but there seemed to be an unusually high number of them in Kentucky. Makes me wonder if they were named "Lick" for some other reason.

by NE Kind of Guy on Sep 13, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport

@Tina:
The goal of the map is not to color the Midwest, it's to show the regional variation in toponyms.

If the map showed creek, sure Illinois would be really colorful. But whatever color that was would overpower all of the other colors since it's predominant in every region. A map that is exclusively one color wouldn't be as interesting.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 13, 2011 4:14 pm • linkreport

RE: Complaints

Bayou/Swamp isn't a river/creek/stream!
Looking at the map it looks like the dataset is filtered for river- and creek-like shapes with a flow to them (the data includes flow), i.e. waterways. So they are looking at the different unusual names for waterways.

Leaving out creek/river is highly deceptive; it then turns out there isn't much regional distinction.

It's not highly deceptive - they specifically leave out the universal names so that you can see what kinds of specialized names are used in different places - and there is clearly a lot of regional difference in those secondary names.

by MLD on Sep 13, 2011 4:18 pm • linkreport

@NE Kind of Guy - If I remember KY history correctly (and if what I was taught was correct) KY was known for the salt licks and slightly salty creeks. "Lick" like in Paint Lick was supposed to refer to where animals came to lick salt.

by Kate W on Sep 13, 2011 4:23 pm • linkreport

@Matt J. - I understand the goal of the map. Regarding "River" and "Creek", as Alex B. noted,

... there seem to be far more of them [gray lines] in the Midwest and Great Plains than the rest of the country - and if that's really the case, then those are also regional differences that should be accounted for instead of brushed aside as the most common terms.

And its not at all true that gray lines dominate in every region. See New England, the Appalchain Mnts from PA, and NM&AZ

by Tina on Sep 13, 2011 4:24 pm • linkreport

*from PA to GA

by Tina on Sep 13, 2011 4:25 pm • linkreport

Unless there are locations where the regionally preferred name is the standard name.

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 13, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

@Matt

What I'm arguing (and Tina too) is that "creek" and "river" are not uniformly common across the US. Leaving them off of the map actually denies some of the regional variation.

For example, all of the colorful areas that show off other names for streams is interesting, but without the context of knowing if that's just because the bodies of water are common or if the different names are common, it's not particularly useful.

If only 1/4 streams is called a creek in the Mid-Atlantic but 3/4 of streams are called creeks in the Midwest, that's a significant regional difference, is it not?

Looking at this map - even knowing that 'creek' and 'river' are omitted, you come away with the initial impression that there are far fewer of such bodies of water. That may or may not be true - but if the map's purpose is to show the regional variation, then this would seem to be a large omission.

If the map showed creek, sure Illinois would be really colorful. But whatever color that was would overpower all of the other colors since it's predominant in every region. A map that is exclusively one color wouldn't be as interesting.

The fact that creek is predominant isn't the interesting question, though - the question of how predominant that term is matters.

by Alex B. on Sep 13, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I saw that map. Funny thing is that kil(l) was unknown to me. Apparently, it's hidden in a few names, but it ain't no modern Dutch. We've got rivieren, sloten, beken, grachten, singels, vaarten, diepen, all kinds of things. But very few kils are left.

by Jasper on Sep 13, 2011 4:30 pm • linkreport

@Neil F., look at MI & WI. There are a few brooks, runs, streams and branches but its clear those aren't the "regionally preferred" names for these types of bodies of water. Those are anomalies in that region.

by Tina on Sep 13, 2011 4:34 pm • linkreport

@Tina:
The only way to settle this would be to see a map that does colorize creek.

However, I would point out that just because you can't see gray in New England does not mean that there aren't any creeks or that they aren't a majority.

Two things could be happening here. For one, you have to consider geography. The topography of those areas means the overall density of waterways is higher. If we showed all waterways as gray, the Midwest would still have fewer features than Georgia or Maine. The problem is that the Midwest is flat.

Secondly, this map was created using GIS. Based on the design, it's clear that "creeks" and "rivers" are a lower layer. Putting them on top would obscure the other colors. That means that the reds and oranges and greens and purples are drawn on top of the grays.

And in the density of the East, it probably means you can't see the grays at all.

Think of this this way. I give you 50 sheets of gray paper and have you put those down on a table. Then I give you 30 sheets of red paper and 10 sheets of pink paper and tell you to put those down on top of the gray paper. In all likelihood, you won't be able to see much gray.

That's what's happening here. I grew up in northern Georgia. I cannot think of a waterway there that is not called "creek" or "river". And yet Georgia has a lot of red. If we turned the red off, you'd see plenty of gray there.

If you still don't believe me, take a look at this map showing ONLY "creeks" and "brooks".
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pfly/55351469/in/set-72157622754308347

See? Georgia has plenty. As does everywhere else in the country, except New England.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 13, 2011 4:37 pm • linkreport

@NE Kind of Guy:
Here's a map of "lick" in place names:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pfly/4135573378/in/set-72157622754308347

by Matt Johnson on Sep 13, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

@Matt

That's the point - the map shows the concentration of these names, but it doesn't normalize those terms in any fashion against the total population of waterways in the region.

If you presented each state as a pie chart based on names, that would give you a more complete picture of the actual variation in names from place to place.

This map looks really cool, but it ends up conflating two broad sets of information together (linguistic and geographic).

by Alex B. on Sep 13, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

Hoagies > grinders

by TGEOA on Sep 13, 2011 5:24 pm • linkreport

Great map. It's interesting that Northern VA is predominately "run" while Central Maryland and Delaware is predominately "branch" (rivers and creeks notwithstanding). Since "branch" is primarily used in the South, while "run" is used in areas to the north such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, is there any idea as to why the "branch" nomenclature permeated as far north into Maryland as it did while Northern VA used "run"?

by Reza on Sep 13, 2011 5:30 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the link!

Regarding the Great Creek/River Debate: essentially, there is only so much information that can be crammed on a single map, and those patterns were less interesting to me than showing more unique regional names. Judgement calls like this are the bread and butter of mapmaking, and Matt pretty much nailed my reasoning in his previous post. If anyone is interested, "How to Lie with Maps" by Mark Monmonier provides a very readable overview of how maps always distort reality to some extent.

Creeks and rivers cover most of the US. Regional variations in this density are reflected on the map (but not to the detriment of what I thought were more interesting patterns). Dark areas are either almost 100% creeks/rivers or (more rarely) simply have very few waterways. In retrospect, I do wish that I had made creeks/rivers a lighter gray to make it easier to distinguish between those two cases.

Mapping the quantities of creeks/rivers by region was simply not the goal of this map. Instead, I wanted to show some qualitatively unique regional terms for flowing water as defined by the NHD.

My purpose was more "look at some interesting regional names that were popular enough to become official!", and less "lets dig into the specific percentages of which names are used in different areas". Given the nature of the data, I think the latter would be more misleading than the former. Names are nebulous, dynamic, and differ between individuals and over time. Attempting to portray the NHD data in a pie chart (for example), in my opinion, would overreach the significance of the data more than simply my saying "by the way, there are also a bunch of creeks and rivers that I didn't find very interesting".

Thanks for the comments and the interest! Glad to be prompting some interesting cartographic discussion.

by Derek Watkins on Sep 13, 2011 7:03 pm • linkreport

@Matt: "The problem is that the Midwest is flat."

The traditional Iowa response to this assertion is "hee hee".

But seriously, thanks! I love this kind of stuff.

by Miriam on Sep 13, 2011 7:18 pm • linkreport

The creek/river debate is interesting because in my ESL experience they are completely different things. Rivers are, well rivers, while creeks (to me) are more paths water can run, but does not always. I've always associated them with the West, and dry country. So, a creek would be a place where a water runs, if there is water.

Rock Creek kinda fits into that in the sense that during dry spells, it's no more than a trickle, while during wet days (think last week), it's a rushing madhouse.

Oddly, the internet does not give a ready decent definition of a creek, other than the old British definition, which is rather irrelevant to modern American-English.

by Jasper on Sep 13, 2011 8:36 pm • linkreport

I am from South Dakota, and went to school in Iowa (upper Midwest/Plains). I never heard the word "Run" used to describe a waterway until I moved east, despite what this map says - "run" is not used in the Midwest to describe waterways. We used the word "creek" to describe any body of water smaller than a river.

by Chris on Sep 14, 2011 9:32 am • linkreport

@NE Kind of Guy, @Matt Johnson: Let's not forget Big Lick, Virginia...or as we like to call it, "Roanoke". I've always been sorry that they chose to change the name, lo these many years ago. Oh, well...we still have Haysi, and Frog Level (two!), and Zuni...

@Jasper: You wrote:
The creek/river debate is interesting because in my ESL experience they are completely different things. Rivers are, well rivers, while creeks (to me) are more paths water can run, but does not always. I've always associated them with the West, and dry country. So, a creek would be a place where a water runs, if there is water.

Interesting you say that - because to me, what you describe as a "creek" is what I would call a "wash" or an "arroyo". Having grown up in the DC area, I tend to think of creeks as small rivers, basically. Their water levels fluctuate with the rain, but there always is some water in them. Washes and arroyos are completely dry, for the most part, unless the rain comes, at which point they fill up. Another point: washes and arroyos tend to fill up much more quickly than do creeks when a sudden storm blows through. (I think? Admittedly my view of what constitutes a wash and an arroyo is based more on the works of Tony Hillerman and on my mother's recollections of living in Texas than on any lived experience of my own.)

Incidentally, speaking of ESL: I hope you've had a chance to discover our wonderful Southern dialect? It's not quite as illogical as it seems at first blush...

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Sep 14, 2011 9:59 am • linkreport

@ Ser:I hope you've had a chance to discover our wonderful Southern dialect?

I married a Southerner. I recently had an exchange with Matt about the use of y'all and all y'all, being the only way in English to differentiate between second person singular and plural, something that I miss dearly. Imagine living in a world were I and we are the same word, or he and they. Insane!

Incidentally, I've heard from many immigrants that they love the southern dialect, as opposed to the NYC or Boston dialects, because generally, it's slower and hence easier to understand. It was never an issue for me, but I can see the point. Though, you must admit, at some point the Southern dialect becomes an unintelligible mash of vowels. Colbert had a good example of that on last Monday.

On the creek/wash thing, I guess a wash would also describe that I think of as a creek. I never heard of an arroyo. Spanish is not on my language spectrum. Nor have I hung out a lot in the southern border region (yet).

by Jasper on Sep 14, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

Very awesome map. In southern New England, where I grew up, I probably would call a small river a stream, and I guess maybe a brook. I don't think creek was used much, either in formal name or casual usage.

But when I'd visit my grandparents in western PA, the kids there all used the word crick a lot. I realize this map had to leave out river and creek (and didn't have info for casual names like crick). A map sowing more dialectical uses would be interesting, but it's pretty cool that just the formal names of the waterways themselves have such regional variations.

by TM on Sep 14, 2011 10:42 am • linkreport

@Canaan

Funny, when I moved down south to Northern Virginia, I found the frequent use of the term "run" proof that I was now in The South :) (Bull Run being my primary association with the term). It's all relative!

by Catherine on Sep 14, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

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