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

Posted on: January 31st, 2020 by Brent Gotsch
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.

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