Posts Tagged ‘creek’

What’s in a Name? Why are there Different Names for Waterways?

Posted on: January 31st, 2020 by Leslie_Zucker
Local names for Brooks, Creeks, Kills, Rivers, Runs and Streams in New York State. Image by Andy Arthur.

Local names for Brooks, Creeks, Kills, Rivers, Runs and Streams in New York State. Image by Andy Arthur.


Here at the Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program (AWSMP) we often get asked the question:  what’s the difference between a stream, creek, brook, and a river? First, those are just some of the many names that are used to label waterways in the United States. Not only that, but those names can spark great passions among many in the community and especially on social media. Everyone seems to have their favorite descriptor for what a waterway should be and their own personal belief on a naming scheme for the size of waterways. Many people believe that only “large” waterways should be called rivers for example. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) there is technically no official naming taxonomy for waterways and the words, river, creek, brook, stream, etc. can be used interchangeably.

Regionally there can be a lot of variation. It seems that the names of waterways derive mostly from the historical and cultural aspects of the people who lived near them. For example, in the Hudson Valley and Catskill region a very common designation for a waterway is the word “kill” as in Bush Kill, Beaver Kill, Wallkill and Fishkill to name just a few. The reason for that is because the Dutch were the original European settlers in these regions and the Dutch word “kill” essentially translates into the English words stream or creek. It’s less clear why some of the streams have the word “kill” attached to the first word (such as Wallkill) and others are separated (such as Bush Kill) or why some even have what would seem to be a redundant word after them (such as Fishkill Creek).

Prior to being known as a stream, creek, or brook, water begins flowing downhill in a rill, the word for the smallest channels that contain concentrated flow. Rills merge to form streams, creeks, brooks, runs, or kills based largely on the cultural history of the region. Then, as pioneering river scientist, Luna Leopold said, “at some undefined size, they are termed rivers.” So whether your favorite term for a stream is a creek (or “crik” as many locals like to say), a brook, a kill or a river, we can all take enjoyment in our local streams and all that they provide for us.