Inundated with place names

I figured I’d jump right in with my first post and share a map I made a while back that I finally got around to polishing up:

Map of generic toponyms for streams in the contiguous US

Generic place names (or toponyms) such as Cumberland Gap or Mount Rainier provide general categorical descriptions of a geographic feature, in contrast to specific toponyms, which provide a unique identifier: Lake Huron. This map taps into the place names contained in the USGS National Hydrography Dataset to show how the generic names of streams vary across the lower 48. Creeks and rivers are symbolized in gray due to their ubiquity (although the etymology behind the American use of creek is interesting), while bright colors symbolize other popular toponyms.

Lite-Brite aesthetic notwithstanding, I like this map because it illustrates the range of cultural and environmental factors that affect how we label and interact with the world. Lime green bayous follow historical French settlement patterns along the Gulf Coast and up Louisiana streams. The distribution of the Dutch-derived term kill (dark blue) in New York echoes the colonial settlement of “New Netherland” (as well as furnishing half of a specific toponym to the Catskill Mountains). Similarly, the spanish-derived terms rio, arroyo, and cañada (orange hues) trace the early advances of conquistadors into present-day northern New Mexico, an area that still retains some unique cultural traits. Washes in the southwest reflect the intermittent rainfall of the region, while streams named swamps (desaturated green) along the Atlantic seaboard highlight where the coastal plain meets the Appalachian Piedmont at the fall line.

There are a few patterns on the map that I haven’t been able to figure out. West Virginia shows a sharp north to south division between runs and branches that continues to puzzle me. Some other geographic patterns I’ve noticed in WV largely run parallel to the Appalachians, from the SE to NW. I don’t know much about the area, though, and I have no idea what could be behind such a distinct division. Any West Virginia-ites willing to take a stab? I’m also intrigued by the patch of branches in southwestern Wisconsin, which I suspect may have something to do with the diffusion of naming practice by way of branch-loving Appalachian miners during a regional lead mining boom in the early 19th century.

This map originally came from a late 2009 project in a class by Joby Bass. If I remade it now, I’d probably try to negotiate some of the overlaps in symbology that happens in very crowded areas, but I still think it’s interesting as-is. If you are interested in learning more about toponyms, George Stewart’s Names on the Land is an engaging classic on naming practices in the US, and there are more specific articles about stream names from Wilbur Zelinsky and Robert West.

Edit: It inexcusably slipped my mind, but a tip o’ the hat to Bill Rankin  for design inspiration!

Update: James Cheshire over at Spatial Analysis has posted a version for the UK. Very cool to see which names did – or more interestingly, the ones that didn’t – make the jump to the US. For example, why did brook have such influence in New England, when it doesn’t seem to be very pervasive on James’ map? Was brook more popular in the UK in the past? Interesting stuff!

Update 2: Pfly posted this link to his flickr page in the comments below, with some interesting maps of toponyms pulled  from the Geographic Names Information System (the underlying dataset for the names I queried from the NHD). Some stream patterns are much easier to see when only one or two names are mapped at a time, and the set also includes some nice maps of non-watery toponyms, as well.


  1. Stunning! I live in Michigan and I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more unique terms here.

  2. i know everyone’s going to say “you missed ____!”, but anyway: you missed “crick”!

    • When I made this map, I remember there being a lot of interesting one-off generic terms that fell through the cracks. I think spelling also factors into crick vs creek: people might say “crick”, but is it common to spell it like that?

      Also, while the vernacular names used by regular people factor into this map, it’s still limited since the names originally come from the GNIS. So, instead of a full map of vernacular usage we end up with those names that were officially approved by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

      There are probably some really cool patterns in the names people informally use on a daily basis to refer to their surroundings, but that is some slippery data to pin down. I think there is some potential in tapping into social media like twitter and flickr. (Although with that sort of data you have to be careful generalizing from the culture of the online population).

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Diane

        In northwestern Illinois we use creek. For instance, I live by Yellow Creek, which had major flooding both last year and this year. That is its real name on maps. Maybe there just aren’t enough creeks to show up?

      • Where I grew up (Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada) I remember the term “crick” being used for the waterway that flowed through the village near my farm (Demorestville). I never felt the word was simply a different pronunciation of “creek”, but I suppose it must have been on some level. I do remember there being creeks, and then “the crick” as well. Almost as if “the crick” was the proper name for this particular waterway… Thinking back I feel like “creek” was for smaller streams (a word that was also in use) and “crick” was for larger ones.

        It would be interesting to redo this project with some sort of survey (kind of like the web-famous “soda vs pop” map), because terms like “the crick” that I’m remembering are local names for waterways that surely have a different proper name that is used on maps. In all, in my region, brook, stream, creek, and crick were all separately in use.

        BTW, I checked Google Maps to see if I could find a name but the crick seems to have been too small to earn a mention there. It doesn’t even show.

      • @Shannon — try looking for your crick in Bing maps. It’s better for this sort of reference map research. And I’d be interested to hear if you find it there.

      • Audrey

        Ha! I was thinking the same thing. Like Shannon, I never thought that the word crick was a different pronunciation of creek. I am surprised that creek didn’t make the cut, though.

  3. Thanks for the link to my cartographically inferior attempt! Glad you find it interesting!

  4. Raphael

    This is really great. I’d recommend using two different colors (shades of gray?) to distinguish river and creek. You’d probably see an interesting size gradient.

  5. Raphael

    It’d also be interesting to look at tidal waterbodies. In California, we often use “slough”, but around New York, I hear “creek” being used

    • Bob Stanza

      Along the Gulf coast and atlantic seaboard, there is also the intercoastal waterway, or intercoastal for short. While some are artificial canals, most areas are natural waterways of one kind or another.

  6. That is a beautiful piece of work! This topic, and this data is not something I would have thought to explore, but the piece really draws me into it. Nicely done.

  7. John

    Would be interesting to compare with DARE.

  8. Brilliant, I love it. And such a great idea — there must be lots of maps in this vein to mine.

    I couldn’t figure out the order of the words along the top. They almost look east to west, in which case I think I’d reverse them, to match the map. I wonder if there’s another dimension to plot with colour?

    I also wondered how you might explore the a topographic aspect, since e.g. you’d never get a bayou in the mountains. I mean, some of the drivers behind the changes are probably not purely cultural, though obviously they are connected through migration patterns, habitability, etc.

    I could look at this map for ages. Cheers!

  9. NIcely done. Is the dividing line between ‘run’ v. ‘branch’ in West Virginia defined by the Kanawha River? Perhaps that was a difficult river to cross back in the day and the difference in names reflects settlement by two different groups.

    This reminds me of a map that hung –or maybe still hangs– in the hallway at Penn State geography. It was drawn by Wilbur Zelinsky in the 1980s or maybe earlier. Perhaps you could ask…

  10. Bernie

    The distribution of dialectal terms for stream nearly exactly match the divisions between the “Northern,” “Midland,” and “Southern” dialects. “Run” is the Midland term, “Branch” is the Southern term. The WV split isn’t that surprising as most linguists place the dividing line between the “Midland” and “Southern” dlalects somewhere between Baltimore and DC and then out westward. Maryland and WV follow this pattern as expected.

    To me, it is Northern Virginia that is the outlyier and head stratcher. All I can figure is that the heavy German presence there in Colonial times may be have introduced the “MIdland” term.

  11. VI

    I couldn’t help but notice the relatively large number of sloughs (compared to other non-creek toponyms) in the Pacific Northwest, but I regret to inform you that few of them are a synonym of “stream”. Sloughs in the northwest are either a tidal backwash in a bay or near the mouth of a river, or a minor waterway opposite the main channel of a slow-moving river when it splits around an island. Likewise, a fork in the northwest is simply one of the main tributaries of a river, eg. the Cowlitz River is comprised of the Muddy Fork (off glaciers on Mt. Rainier), and the Clear Fork (fed from snowfields to the east).

    • Thanks for the insights. That definition of “slough” almost makes things more interesting. “Creek” originally had a similar definition, before being used differently and spreading ubiquitously inland in the US. It looks like you might be able to see some of that happening on the west coast with sloughs, especially in the Willamette Valley in OR and the Central Valley in CA. Or perhaps most of those are the “island-splits” you mentioned?

      Although, regarding forks, I’d argue that those small tributaries deserve to be included anyway. I think they offer some interesting information about how naming practices were standardized over time (and across distances) to refer to only one specific physical feature.

      • Here are a few observations, based on some 30 years in the Central Valley and a childhood on the North Coast of California.

        The Central Valley of California is very flat, and when the rivers are high, the water backs up into the low spots, which are called sloughs. The Sacramento Delta has many of these backwaters, some of which are permanently full. Others are seasonal or temporary, filling only after a storm or heavy snowmelt raises the river. A slough is not a river or creek, as it has no upstream water source. A few of the sloughs may be splits, as described above, but those are more often called “channels.”

        The larger tributaries of the Sacramento are substantial rivers (the American, Feather and Bear come to mind), fed by the Sierra snow and prone to flooding in the spring. Smaller tributaries are called creeks, like Cache Creek (which drains Clear Lake), and Arcade Creek, which runs from the Sierra foothills.

        As the Coast Range, unlike the Sierra Nevada, has very little snow, the coastal rivers vary considerably with the seasons. Many of the springs, fed by winter rains, dry up in late summer. So you may occasionally see a small stream identified as a “river.” Look up for the high-water mark. Sometimes it’s way up high on a nearby redwood. Creeks here are usually shorter, with smaller watersheds, but still have some water, even in summer. I can think of one that is called a “gulch,” not being big enough to call a “creek.” The Coast Range mountains are rugged, if not generally tall, and every creek and river runs through a steep canyon, not a flat or gentle valley.

      • Sean

        That definition certainly fits the Famosa Slough in San Diego, a now-isolated patch of wetland that used to be tidal until the section of the slough nearest the bay was filled in to make additional land for development.

      • Cybele

        Julie explained the northern California terms perfectly.
        The sloughs are in the central valley.
        Here in the coast range you can jump across a river during drought years but you would be amazed to see the high water marks from previous floods and a stream is definitely a creek.
        This year, after a prolonged wet season there is still water in our local creek but it stops a couple of mile before it reaches the river.

  12. It could also be political. for example in MD it looks like Baltimore County and SSt Mary’s County use run, while the neighboring counties don’t. These are old places, so perhaps whoever drew up the original maps simply called everything a run.

    That could also apply in Northern Virginia.

    As for WV – you’ll notice that run actually continues down into Tennessee. Its clearly a term that was used throughout Appalachia. Its that the southern term – branch – never made it further north past the Kanawha.

    • Interesting that you bring up Maryland. I had forgotten the content, but remembered coming across an old article about Maryland when I was originally studying for this project:

      Kuethe, J. Louis. 1935. “Runs, Creeks, and Branches in Maryland.” American Speech, 10(4): 256-259.

      After a quick skim, it looks like he is arguing that there is a mostly physical basis for run-branch-creek divisions in Maryland, from the mountains to the coast:

      “If any conclusion is possible in this survey, it would seem that run is used in the mountains for the action, the speed, which it denotes; branch is used in the plateau because of the greater number of divisions or ‘branches’ in the streams of that section; and the term creek predominates in the coastal area because of the influence of the original meaning of the word, an inlet or tidal estuary.” (259)

      I’m not sure how well his maps match up to mine, though. I’d imagine any differences would be due to either the passing of time, different name adoption practices for the GNIS than the names he sampled, or both.

      Also, regarding the line in WV: this could be complicated by the limitations to my symbology mentioned in the original post. I don’t remember the order of the layers off the top of my head, but if for example runs were mapped on top of branches, the former could obscure the density of the latter. Looking closely at the map, this doesn’t seem to be the case, but maybe something to keep in mind!

  13. Simon McPherson

    During a recent road-trip me and the wife noticed how many places had boringly generic names. I wonder if West Virginia has lots of streams called ‘runs’ because they are fast flowing or because they are salmon rivers, called ‘salmon runs’ in the UK? Perhaps the early settlers brought the name with them….

  14. I’m most intrigued by the apparent decreasing number of named bodies of water in both the west and the Rocky Mountains. It made me wonder if due to the settlement of the west and technology change that perhaps small bodies of water became less important and thus fewer of them were named. Otherwise it seems very odd that there would be fewer of these in the west than the east. (Or perhaps despite squinting & magnifying, I missed a TON of grey generic named waterways.)

    • While there are a some dry/flat patches in the West that do have fewer streams, I think there are also quite a few creeks that might not be showing up on your monitor. Probably poor color choice on my part – in an effort to fade the less interesting data into the background, I probably made creeks a bit too subtle on the black background! The ways that subtle variations in brightness show up on different monitors seems to be especially variable.

  15. A friend posted this on Facebook. This is pure genius. I have had this conversation with lots of other water/planner colleagues. Fantastic visualization!

  16. SDK

    Are you aware that in coastal Maine the “boring” term river is frequently used for tidal estuaries of medium to large size? Sometimes these basins have a large freshwater river emptying into them, but frequently they don’t. Examples: Damariscotta River, Benjamin River Bagaduce River.

    • I didn’t know that! Interesting. Any idea about the proliferation of the equally mundane stream in Maine? Seems to be the only place in the US where the term is really used. Thanks for the comment.

      • SDK

        I’m not sure, but the term stream is very common in Maine. We have a place on McHeard Stream in East Blue Hill, a coastal village. It is about the size of what were usually called creeks in Western NC where I grew up.

        Maine has an interesting settlement history, with several native tribes giving places names. Then the first Europeans were the French who settled around Mount Desert Island (where Acadia National Park is now) and there are several mountains with French names (Champlain, Acadia, Huguenot Head, Saint Sauver). The french then moved on to Louisiana and Quebec. This was followed by Maine becoming part of Massachusetts and many English names being used for towns and places. Then French Candians began to migrate back resulting in a few more French names in the northern and western parts of the state.

      • KHJ

        I am originally from southern Maine where “brooks” predominate. The brooks I am personally familiar with are all short and shallow, and they drain directly into lakes. Maine has hundreds of natural lakes.

        For several years now I’ve lived in Virginia, which has only two natural lakes. Here, small streams do not drain into lakes, but rather meet up with other streams and form rivers. If you follow the waterways inland from the coast, they keep bifurcating and bifurcating, so it seems natural to refer to them as “forks” and “branches.”

  17. Holly

    Fascinating — I’ve often noticed these differences myself, it’s fun to see them mapped out.

    Similarly I’ve often been interested in the difference between what people call a narrow gap between mountains in various parts of the Northeast. In New Hampshire it’s a notch. In the Adirondacks, it’s a pass. In the Catskills, it’s often a clove.

  18. Ken

    The map is not only interesting but has a striking visual design, much more eye-catching than most maps. How did you come up with the “Lite-Brite aesthetic” (as you call it)? Also, what tools did you use to generate it?

    • Design-wise, I was heavily influenced by Bill Rankin’s awesome map of the names of Vancouver streets: this project began as an attempt to duplicate what he did there, but the patterns turned out to be not so interesting for the area I was looking at, so I switched to stream names.

      I mapped the data by layering various queries in ESRI ArcMap, and exported to Illustrator for final design.


  19. Motes

    I’m not a geographer, or a data-chart-map-opher, or an ethnoriverologist, or whatever. I am a story teller and an angler, so place names and watercourses are fascinating to me. I think that there are naming trends that you have not considered, and good reasons to suspect that the names you use as data are distinctions with too little, or too much, difference. Mainly I’d say the names you sort are not interchangeable, or would be much less interchangeable if you asked the right questions. That is, this chart is interesting but I don’t consider it as authoritative as, say, the Coke/Pop/Soda map.

    It’s true that some terms are interchangeable, or, as you suggest, are synonyms influenced by the language of those who found or used them. Unfortunately, it’s not as interesting that the Spanish-speakers called it a “rio” while the English speakers called it a “river”. Just a translation, and a cognate at that. Plus, “river”—being the biggest watercourse—is also the term with the most breadth and therefore the least subtlety. Smaller streams, like smaller mountains, roads, and other features, have the most detail and the most variation.

    The reason that nobody in New York would be tempted to call a watercourse a wash or arroyo isn’t because they had a unique Dutch take on a wash or arroyo. It’s because there aren’t any washes or arroyos in New York. If you compare similar watercourses, especially those well up the watershed, you get a smaller cluster of true synonyms.

    “kill” is just a degraded Dutch place name that means something like flow, river, stream. It doesn’t seem especially interesting to me that Dutch folk from Haarlem used Dutch words to name stuff they recognized from their time back home in Dutchia. (When you go fish in a Kill in Vermont or Connecticut or New York, you can always tell the folk who have local pride of ownership on the term. They’re the ones who insist on saying or writing “Batten Kill” instead of “Battenkill.” This is the same human impulse that leads musicians to lend particular Italian emphasis to musical terms, and gourmet cooks to lend particular French emphasis to the word “Kwuhssohhnt”—bad news to kids who want to win the spelling bee.)

    The precision or specificity of the terms is what makes them interesting. Some terms are more accurate than others. For example, a slough is a highly specific type of watercourse. In freshwater it is used to describe a side-channel that is slower moving (but often deeper) than the main river channel. It also accurately describes an oxbow lake–a cut-off meander with no flow at all. In tidal areas a slough is a long narrow channel or gut that is deeper than surrounding water, so it can be a deep tidal creek or a hole or channel in an estuary (or ‘sound’ if you are in the mid-atlantic states, ‘gut’ if you are north of the Chesapeake.) The people who made such distinctions and named places for them did so not because they were influenced by language but because they wanted to distinguish those highly specific features, usually because the food potential or navigation or protection of those features was different from surrounding areas. (Though I’ve heard that ‘gut’ is also Dutch. Checking.)

    Naming choices were often based on the way watercourses were first explored. In Virginia those explorations spread upward from the bay into the rivers, so the first observers had a saltwater basis and named places accordingly–‘river’ is used for surprisingly small streams in the tidewater. Also, as people moved from larger rivers into their tributaries, you find odd naming conventions, such as my favorite geography question–“What are the three tributaries of the Mattaponi?” “Why, the Matta, the Po, and the Ni, of course.”

    I think that the naming phases are less related to the language of the people and more related to their purposes or movements. There were sea-borne discoverers, who came and went and tended to be interested in navigation; then overland explorers, then those who stopped and lived there, and finally those who collected names together into maps and records and so on. Those guys in small boats were done after they had pushed as far as they could up the Mattaponi and the Piankatank and the Occoquan and the Accotinklestink (I made up that last one–it wasn’t Captain John Smith who situated a sewage treatment plant on Accotink Creek. It was Fairfax County). It was different people with different motivations who wandered the uplands and mountains—their naming was perpendicular rather than parallel. Folks who are crossing a wide, hot prairie in a Conestoga wagon have different goals and purposes, not just different languages. Those overland people would have been delighted to make use of the clear, cool creek they found; once they find a good place to get the wagons across, though, they would likely move on. That leads to different names, but also different types of names from those guys who poled up a creek and couldn’t wait to turn around for the easy float back down out of these scary godforsaken woods.

    And of course some names arise from political considerations, though I don’t think that Gallatin and Jefferson ever found out that the Madison got the best river. The three come together to form the Missouri, it says in the guidebook, as though they conspired. Seems likely that if the three hadn’t joined so close together, the Missouri would not have been de-named and it would have stayed Missouri on up into the mountains. The namer just got lazy. It’s the same kind of mistake that caused the Mississippi to be the longest river in the U S (but not the world.) The mouth of the Missouri seemed pretty minor to an explorer pushing past it in the summertime, when the Big Mo is fairly low. The Mississippi makes a pleasingly straight north-south line up into the Minnesota (where it begins to misbehave, ducking capriciously in and out of lakes and feinting back and forth through swamps.) If the explorers had realized early enough that taking a left at the Missouri would give them a longer river, we’d have a considerably different set of names for places, and radio stations. Plus the river would not end in a lake, it would end in a “fork”—actually, several of them. Plus, it might end in Canada, and so we would have had to have a war to conquer the headwaters of the Mississouri and keep our sacred river, shining like the national guitar, entirely in the US.

    So, long story longer, you find few bayous in Acadia, or anywhere up in French Canada. This is not because there aren’t watercourses named by French-speaking people up there; it’s because there are few wide, slow-flowing rivers that drain a swampy area, then give access to brackish and then saltwater. There are plenty of bayous in the southern Atlantic seaboard, but they are almost invariably called creeks. (You notice that nobody ever discusses the Gulf Seaboard or the Pacific or the Arctic seaboard?)

    The Atchafalaya is not bayou country instead of creek or run or kill country. It’s bayou country because this is where you find bayous. (They have plenty of creeks there, too, and lots of sloughs though no runs or kills. On that note, the tributaries of the Beaverkill and the Battenkill are called creeks, brooks, and branches–no runs). The Atchafalaya’s geology is very different from anyplace those Acadians had seen before; a wetland basin that flows more than one way at times, a swamp that transitions into a sequence of estuarine wetlands then into a delta. (The Everglades is similar but lacks a single central river, so it has the opposite of a delta.) The Atchafalaya river is–or was, or is on occasion–a distributary–a place where a river divides itself down-flow, doesn’t rejoin the parent river, and doesn’t quickly enter a sea or lake. That is very unusual. It’s also the odd riverine equivalent of a reservoir, or perhaps the inverse of a reservoir–instead of a body of water held in place by a dam, it’s a body of water prevented by a dam. As we saw this summer with the opening of the Morganza Spillway, it’s a place where “flood control” means we get the flood that was supposed to go someplace else.

    Where I grew up creek was generic for a smallish stream, run was generic for a large creek or a small river, and river was largest. There, a “branch” is a free-flowing upper portion of a watershed, often the last named tributary so it usually ended in springs (or bogs or seeps). “Branch” is equivalent to brook or freshet (or the word I head in West Virginia, “Trickle”.) “Runs” are generally large enough so that you would hesitate to cross it just about anywhere and would parallel it until you found a ford, where of course, over time, a road would form. Runs received creeks; creeks received branches. “Crick” is just hillbilly for “creek”, but in Minnesota and Wisconsin the same word is used and is apparently distinguished from “creek” even though nobody spells it ‘crick.’ It is dangerous to point this out to people wearing Green Bay Packers gear.

    If you’d like another cultural naming factor, consider battlefields from the Civil War (or, as I learned to call it, the War of Northern Aggression and Watercourse Misnaming). Bull Run is about the same size as Antietam Creek, and they are about 50 miles apart. Both ran red, though.

    Anglers make names for places too. Brook trout (really a char) are the only native freshwater (non-anadromous) salmonid on the East Coast. When present, they are usually found in the upper reaches of the watercourse. Rainbow trout have been introduced from the Western US to many Eastern rivers; they will outcompete brookies in some complete stream systems but usually brookies will remain in the far upper tributaries of the streams and rainbows will thrive anywhere there is substantial flow of cold water. Brown trout came from Europe; they can tolerate warmer water at slower flows than rainbows, so in some systems you have overlapping but distinct areas where brookies, rainbows, and brownies predominate. So we’re surprised to find brookies in a river, though it’s not unusual to find brownies in a creek. And don’t get me started about those “rivers” that are formed, or reformed, by passing through a dam—a “tailwater.” Virginia’s Jackson River is excellent trout habitat where a warmwater creek would have been before. The river’s cold, well-oxygenated flow is maintained by a dam that draws water varying depths in the lake above, depending on the lake’s water temperature. The trout, and the anglers, appreciate this lovely tailrace fishery, but the system wasn’t designed for fish; it was designed for the papermill downstream in Covington, a place where no trout passeth. So what might have been a creek becomes a river not because of the size but the temperature.

    (The Jackson also has put an old twist on another watercourse definition. Most places in the US, “navigable” applies to pretty much every watercourse, no matter how small. US law makes navigable waterways public to the mean high water mark. This means that even small branches, forks, and runs can’t be dammed, blocked, fenced, or obstructed for waders, canoeists, tubers, and so on. Landowners on the Jackson didn’t like this, and defended their right to prevent boaters from floating down the middle of a sizable river, made a quality trout stream by a sizable outlay of VA tax dollars to benefit a sizable private paper manufacturer, by arguing that their land grants predated the US Constitution, so British law applied. British law is, shall we say, considerably less sympathetic to the recreational hopes of the grubby commoner. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed, perhaps because they were still stinging from SCOTUS’ reversal of their decision in Loving v. Virginia. SCOTUS can’t review this type of case for some reason, so that portion of southwest Virginia has now apparently renounced the US Constitution. That’s another story.)

    Virginia has two “natural” lakes (not loughs or lochs) –the mere at the center of Dismal Swamp (called Lake Drummond) and the tarn called Mountain Lake, created when an earthquake caused a landslide to impound a valley. (neither ‘mere’ or ‘tarn’ is really accurate for these, either.) Nowhere else in the Commonwealth is there a still body of water that is not created by a dam (a reservoir, an impoundment, a pond, a tank.) Both are called lakes not because of a cultural convention or a distinction based on tributaries, source water, or outlets. The convention is economic. When most American watercourses were named the namers lived in very close context with them. They were boundaries, water sources, barriers, means of transportation, food sources, laundromats, swimming pools, refrigerators, and a hundred other things. The nuances of naming were real physical distinctions–if it’s cold enough, it’s a brook, and let’s build a spring house to keep the butter. If it runs enough to water cattle all year it’s a run so let’s fence it off, but we won’t build nearby because everybody knows runs flood worse than creeks.

    Lake Drummond was discovered very early in the history of the region, but it had no value; nobody lived nearby, nobody used it except moonshiners and escaped slaves, neither of whom cared much about its water quality, seasonal fluctuations, or system of tributaries. Mountain Lake was formed in the 20th century; a lake was a lake, water, meh–no distinction important enough to distinguish it, so no oddments of hillbilly distinction.

    As you can see, I can go on, and up, into the tributaries and tributaries of the words used and where they came from and what they meant. But I’d argue that, interesting though the chart is, it is more complex, or perhaps less precise, than it appears.

    I make a few more geological and semantical points on this topic here.


    • Wow – Thanks for such an insightful comment.

      I agree with you that many of the names on this map aren’t equivalent to one another: I certainly wanted to acknowledge the vast physical variations in my original post, although I may not have been clear enough. Perhaps I emphasized language itself a bit too much. Clearly, Dutch or Spanish speakers would tend to use their language to describe their world rather than a language they don’t speak: I don’t think that’s very interesting, either. Rather, the interesting part is that those names linger on the landscape, to be used daily until they become embedded into the fabric of a place. You mentioned the pride some New Yorkers show regarding the term “kill”: names reflect past cultural influences, but also continue to affect local cultures in the present. That’s the part that interests me.

      Regarding bayous, I assume the term isn’t popular in Canada because of it’s origins as a bastardization of the Choctaw bayuk. Complicating things further, the term does tend to describe a sluggish stream, but also shows considerable variation. For example, check out this graphic from the West article mentioned in the original post:

      Bayou Types after West 1954

      I’ll be the first to admit that the map isn’t cut and dry: imprecision is inevitable when trying to represent such convoluted geographic patterns. In fact, I think ambiguities like the ones you pointed out tend to indicate where the really interesting stories are!

      Thanks again for the post.

    • Nycflyangler


      Regarding brook trout. Brook trout, if they have access, will travel down to the sea and live there and returning to spawn. We have them on the Long Island region of New York and the Cape Code region of Massachusetts as well as other places. They’re usually given the name salters.

  20. Jeff Dickens

    As a native West Virginia, I have to say that I don’t find the geographic split between “branch” and “run” all that surprising. West Virginia has always been extremely regionalized and sectionalized in many different ways, primarily because of the terrain. Mountains cover the state from border to border, and the terrain is extremely difficult to traverse. Prior to the construction of the interstate highway system, going from Morgantown (in the northern part of the state) to Charleston (in the southern part of the state) was nearly an 8-hour trip on winding mountain roads.

    Additionally, while the entire state was heavily settled by those with English, Irish and Scots-Irish ancestry, the northern half of the state also has a substantial population of those with Italian and German ancestry, as well as smaller influences from Greek, Polish, Spanish and Dutch peoples. The vast bulk of West Virginia’s small African-American population (currently 3.5%) has always been focused in the southern part of the state. These different ethnic and racial groups moved to the part of the state where they could get work using the skills they had. For example, English and Scots-Irish peoples had lots of coal mining experience, and they immigrated to the state’s coal fields, which were heavily focused in the southern part of the state. Glass and masonry were once large industries in the northern part of the state, and attracted skilled Italian emigrants.

    Historically, even though West Virginia seceded from the state of Virginia during the Civil War, was admitted to the Union in 1863, and fought on the side of the Union, there were many internal struggles with the issues surrounding the war. Records show that while the sympathies of the northern part of the state were firmly with the Union, the southern part had more mixed reactions and opinions. Even though West Virginia had very little slavery and only a handful of plantations, what little existed was almost exclusively in a few southern counties that bordered Virginia. In fact, this northern/southern divide within the state might be best exhibited by West Virginia’s “moving capital city.” Between 1863 and 1877, the capital moved several times between Charleston (in the southern part of the state) and Wheeling (in the northern panhandle), before finally settling in Charleston.

    Here’s another way of looking at West Virginia’s sectionalism. The state’s population is only 1.8 million, and yet is within 500 miles of half of the nation’s population. Charleston and Huntington — each with about only 50,000 — are by far the largest cities, and except for a couple of farm teams, there are no professional sports within the state. As such, various sections of the state tend to focus on the pro sports teams of major metro areas neighboring the state, and are influenced by the media of those cities. West Virginia’s northern panhandle and north-central section (Morgantown, Fairmont, Clarksburg) tend to focus on Pittsburgh. The eastern panhandle tends to focus on the Washington-Baltimore area, and much of the Ohio River valley tends to focus on Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio. A few counties in southeastern West Virginia actually are somewhat influenced by Richmond, Virginia, Only the southern portions of the state surrounding Charleston seem to be uninfluenced in this manner.

    As another reader commented, the linguistics of West Virginia also break across the center of the state. As a native of southern West Virginia (Charleston, in the southern part) who went to undergrad and grad school at West Virginia University (Morgantown, in the northern part), I can attest that there can be rather stark differences between the north and the south. While I grew up saying “creek” and “branch,” the words “run” and “fork” (in regard to water) became much more dominant after I moved to Morgantown.

    So perhaps I provided a little insight that might be helpful!

    • Thanks a lot Jeff! I was hoping someone would be able to offer a bit of insight into the WV split.

      Speaking of sports team preference, I remembered the CommonCensus Sports Map Project. Looking at WV, I think I can see some of the associations with Pittsburgh you described in the northern part of the state. Not conclusive, but cool anyway.

  21. jacobus

    Fascinating map. Here in the southwest (as you mentioned), washes are something very different from a stream, creek, etc. Named washes only fill up during and after a rainstorm, while anything that has a permanent or semi-permanent flow of water is called a river or a creek.

    • Yep, in retrospect, I wish that I had pulled back on the brightness a bit for washes and arroyos. As is, their visual impact is probably disproportionate to their “importance” to the subject matter of the map.

      • so-so

        I wouldn’t say they aren’t important. In dry country, water is crucial- the fact that it’s intermittent is also an important fact.

  22. I found a blog that is kind of similar to this about hyphenated place names in the US.

  23. I agree with what Jeff said as to WV, but would add: look at the river drainage. The northern part of the state was settled by settlers coming up the Potomac and on into its South Branch Valley, or down the Ohio from western Pennsylvania. the southern part of the state was settled by settlers from eastern Tennessee and SW Virginia coming down the New River Valley and the Kanawha. I think you’ll find your “branch” versus “run” dichotomy tracks pretty close to the river systems. It looks like the Kanawha is pretty close to the division. That also tracks with the sports team allegiances: Ohio Valley looks to Pittsburgh, Potomac drainage to DC/Baltimore.

  24. Tde

    Native West Virginian here. Commenters above are right. “Creek” is much more common than branch or run. I assume map was generated with reference to maps, as opposed to common usage. The only time branch or run would be used is when referring a formal name. For example, a person would say “I saw him down by the creek.”. “What creek?”. “Johnson’ Run”. I don’t think you’d ever hear anyone say, “I saw him down by the Run.”

    So I assuming I’m right and map was generated using other maps, perhaps the explanation is different dates of settlement? Or different conventions among different map makers?

    • Very true in Virginia too. Whether it’s Four Mile Run near my house or even such a famous place as Bull Run, you’d still refer to it as the creek. I assume it was the toponyms on the map being plotted here.

  25. pfly

    Nice map! When I first saw it I thought “Hey! He stole my idea!” Then, “But his cartography is much more attractive…” Some years ago I made a bunch of maps similar to yours, showing various generic place name patterns; inspired by reading “Names on the Land”. I used the GNIS dataset, so could map generic names for various types of places, like lakes, passes, peaks, canals, etc. But because GNIS provides point coordinates instead of lines, polygons, etc, my maps are full of dots. Also, I never tried to map more than a handful of generic names in one map, instead trying to find interesting regional patterns and making maps to bring out the patterns. I put them up on Flickr:

    A few observations and curious things: The use of “creek” is, as you say, very widespread, except in New England. One of the most striking regional patterns I found was between “creek” and “brook”. A similar, but less strong, New England pattern comes up in the use of “pond” over “lake”. I found the “branch” vs. “run” divide interesting, and also noted that the use of “run” is essentially sandwiched between the use of “branch” to the south and “brook” to the north.

    The use of “fork” stood out as having a major concentration in most of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, right across the branch-run divide. On your map it is a little tricky to make out the “fork” concentration in Appalachia. Either the forks are being overwhelmed by branches or perhaps the colors are too similar. The use of “fork” occurs in a loose scattered way in the western US, but with a notable concentration in central Utah. Another curious Utah pattern is the use of the term “hollow”, which is very common in the Appalachians and Ozarks (and Texas hill country and that mining region of southwest Wisconsin), but is rare in the West, except for a major band of “hollows” through central Utah and into eastern Idaho. This same area that named many streams “fork”. Mormons pioneered this area, so I’m guessing they brought a tendency to use “hollow” and “fork” for some reason.

    Finally, I saw a commenter here say something about Michigan not having “more unique terms”. One map I made was “canals” (which GNIS defines as irrigation and navigation canals–with irrigation being far more numerous). I noticed Michigan standing out as having a dense cluster of canals called “drain”, a term little used outside Michigan.

    • Those are great! I added a link in the original post. There are definite limitations to the broad brush show-every-name-at-one-time approach I took on my map. I think several of your maps do a better job of showing more detailed distributions, like the fork-branch distinction you mentioned. I like the -ville vs -burg map as well! Thanks a lot.

    • Wflow, how cool! I’m also amazed by the links to the flickr page, particularly the “gulch vs hollow”. I thought I was the only one out there interested by such minutiae! I got curious about it because in my home town of Eugene, Oregon, there are a few hollows, but no gulches, whereas in the southern portion of the state, which was populated more by miners than farmers, there are numerous gulches.

      Thanks to both of you!

    • Answer Guy

      About “pond” vs “lake” in New England…both terms are used. “Lake” is a word generally reserved for a body of water large and deep enough for a small boat, whereas something referred to as a “pond” is usually too small and/or shallow for that purpose.

      It’s a distinction that doesn’t seem to make much sense to people from areas that don’t have lakes or ponds. I haven’t spent enough time in Michigan/Wisconsin/Minnesota to notice if they distinguish large and small stagnant bodies of water in a similar fashion.

      • pfly

        I think over most of the US the word “pond” tends to be used for waterbodies so small as to not even warrant a proper name (thus are not listed in the GNIS database). Your typically little mill pond, or duck pond. New England (and part of New York) seems to stand out as having an unusually large number of named ponds, if that makes sense. I’m sure they are usually smaller than lakes. Most of the larger waterbodies in Maine I can think of are called lakes. But there are some large ponds too. Great Pond, Maine, is something like 7 by 4 miles large. And it is surrounded by several other slightly smaller but still large ponds, North Pond, East Pond, Long Pond. I’m also reminded of Jamaica Pond in Boston. At 68 acres Jamaica Pond isn’t huge, but it is still much larger than what would usually be considered a “pond” in most of the rest of the US. Maybe the use of lake and pond in New England is largely because there is simply a larger number of small to middle sized waterbodies there, compared to most of the rest of the country. Anyway, this is another case where it would be interesting to see how the patterns continue north into Canada.

  26. James Bennett

    Excellent map. Now, go read David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed:

    The distribution of names follows the streams of settlement from the different regions of the British Isles, as described by Fischer, very closely. The dialect differences, which were rightly cited above, are markers for the emigration streams.

    • I noticed this too! The follow-up for Great Britain is not particularly useful, alas, because that dataset doesn’t include many names for watercourses smaller than “river”. However, it could be an *excellent* student project to track regional watercourse terms in G.B. to see whether it supports Fischer’s thesis or not.

  27. stratplayer

    A very interesting topic, indeed, but as a sufferer of red/green colorblindness I must dissent from the generally positive reviews of the map. There are some subtle differences among various colors that I find completely undetectable. Failure to take into account the 10% of the male population who share my condition is a chronic problem with color-coding on websites. I wish this were more widely known.

    • Sorry stratplayer! Hue variations are great for portraying categorical differences on a map, but you’re right: the loss of legibility for the colorblind population is a significant limitation. I think I had heard the 10% figure before, but it’s good to keep in mind. Thanks for the comment.

      • SDK

        It seems like you would have to make several set of maps to allow everyone to see the differences visually. After all there are at least 6 kinds of color blindness in humans. No one design standard will work for all of them.

  28. A good place to start when making maps or information graphics is with Illustrator’s and Photoshop’s color blindness simulators. In the View menu you’ll find Proof Setup >Color Blindness. There you can choose between two types of color blindness. I’ve had very positive feedback when I used these.

    Another useful tool is Cindy Brewer’s Colorbrewer: Color Advice for Maps, It has an option that lets you select only color schemes that are colorblind-safe.

  29. Lisa H.

    Beautiful. Thank you. A comment on “swamp”: I’m from eastern North Carolina, which the map shows as “swamp” territory, but that doesn’t seem quite accurate. It’s flat and the soil is sandy, so small waterways tend not to have sharply defined edges, but at the center of most swamps is an identifiable, if barely moving, body of water. From my home county of Wilson, for example, Toisnot Swamp, Hominy Swamp, White Oak Swamp, all tributaries of Contentnea Creek. The more sharply defined small waterways are called “branch.” (And then there are poquosins, which are another story.)

  30. Keven Roth

    There is another group of names that are currently not represented in the NHD. These are features that are currently classified in GNIS as “Valleys”. They include most names with the generic term gulch, wash, coulee, draw, arroyo. These are terms used almost exclusively in the arid and semi-arid west (I have a map if anyone is interested). I have been waging a campaign with GNIS to have these names “re-classified” as a watercourse because the terms generally apply to both the channel and the water that sometimes flows in the channel and more often than not, the local usage is for the stream. Your map shows washes in Arizona, but that is because Arizona asked USGS to show those names on the topo maps using the type style for “hydro” features. Apparently Utah never asked and most of the washes there are still classified as “valley”. 90% of coulees are in eastern Montana and North Dakota, with an outbreak in the “driftless” area of southwestern Wisconsin. Gulches are associated with gold mining. Draws are concentrated in Wyoming but scattered around the west. I was interested in the Mormon connection with “hollows”…that is something worth verifying.


  31. Dm

    We have forks and washes galore in Utah, but also a number of names not shown on Derek’s map – gulches, canyons, hollows, and even a small group of “waters” (all located in Diamond Fork drainage and called 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Waters resp.)

    Forks here were usually named after early settlers who’ve been granted rights to built logging roads or livestock trails there, so it’s most commonly “Last Name[‘s] Fork”. But sometimes their names get nested (West Fork Blacks Fork, yes, that’s a name of four parts in a region where many names are similarly long-winded), or sometimes “nominees” didn’t want their names used (like when Apostle Smoot built a logging road to supply timbers for the Salt Lake Tabernacle, he insisted that the creek be called Church Fork, for he’s done the work on the Mormon Church’s behalf)

    How do you classify “Left Fork Bear River” btw – as a river or as a fork 😉 ?

    • To make the map, I checked the last word of each name for each generic term shown on the map. So, your example would have been classified as a “river”, which likely under-represents some streams with names like “fork” and “branch” embedded in them. I also queried the first words of names for certain terms, so that rivers like the Rio Grande wouldn’t fall through the cracks.

      Thanks for the info about Utah!

    • pfly

      A favorite “nested” name of mine is the good old North Fork South Branch Potomac River.

  32. Very nice — I love it! And thanks for the shout-out! Check out Section 1.21 “Toponymy,” especially pages 23-26, from the Scratch Atlases: Obviously your version is hugely more successful, but there are some other fun ideas in there.

    • Thanks, Bill. Glad you like the map – I’m a big fan of your work! I hadn’t seen the Scratch Atlases on your site before; that looks like an awesome resource. I’m going to have to find some time to devote to browsing through all of them.

    • Happy!

      Bill, the chapter links lead to 404 pages. Can you post a revised set?

  33. Ron

    Interesting split in NJ between “brook” and “kill” in the north and “branch” and “run” in the south. I speculate that the line is where NJ changes its character from Northeastern to Mid-Atlantic. There is a change in accent, too, and it wouldn’t surprise me if an accent map looked a lot like your toponym map.

    I can’t tell from the map but I believe “brook” extends further south and “kill” further north. Similarly, I think “run” (which I always thought of as distinctively Mid-Atlantic rather than Northeastern) extends further south in NJ and “branch” further north. I live right along the line, and I am near several brooks and branches but not very near the closest kill or run.

    Beautiful map and excellent blog.

  34. C. Wilson

    In Arkansas, streams are often called creeks, and bayous (southern Arkansas) are an extremely slow-moving stream that looks like a swamp. A swamp doesn’t move at all, so they wouldn’t include it as a moving body of water. That may be different farther to the east, though.

    Why did you decide not to include the word creek (did I miss that in the comments?), as it seems to be fairly common and widespread? I’d love to see where that one showed up.

  35. This is a fascinating topic. I did my thesis on this very topic except in Scotland. Hope you don’t mind if I link to it:

  36. JAM

    This is beautiful and very instructive. I’ve long known that geographic locality is often reflected in the generic applied to a geographic feature name. It’s nice to see some of the stream generics plotte out like this.

    Is the file available for download and plotting or is a plot available.

  37. Branch? How interesting. I guess I better start using it to fit in.

  38. Aruna Srijulakhota

    Great map and wonderful comments. I envy the fact that North Americans can enter into such a discussion – I’m Australian, and a lot of lakes, creeks and even rivers there are dry almost all the time. I remember being totally stunned by the number of lakes and streams in southern Ontario and Quebec when I was there, and the sheer volume of water! Amazing! I also remember being laughed at by locals of Port Dalhousie when I had to taste the water of Lake Ontario because it seemed impossible to me that such a huge body of water could be fresh. It was.

  39. Tom Gasque

    In an article in NAMES, the Journal of the American Name Society, back in 1991, Jon Campbell published a similar series of maps showing the distribution of stream generics in the United States. Worth taking a look. (NAMES 39.4, December 1991: 333-65) His maps are not quite as visually striking as these, though the distribution is more clearly delineated.

    • Thanks Tom. I remember coming across that article in my initial research for this project. I can’t find a copy online, but I remember the maps – they were similar to those Pfly has posted on his flickr page, and if I remember correctly he had several maps of less common names, as well.

      There are some disadvantages to representing linear features such as rivers with point data, but I agree – point maps like Pfly’s and Campbell’s can in some ways filter noise and provide a clearer picture of distributions.

  40. I am curious about the empty spot on the map – Northern Erie and Niagara Counties in Western NY. There is the Niagara and Genesee Rivers of course as well as some really nice names like Tonawanda Creek, Irondequoit Creek, Oatka Creek among others…

    This area of the country shows a pragmatism when naming our water bodies, where a River course is easily distinguished from a Creek as a water body. One type of name that is not in common usage (to my unscientific recollection), is the word stream. Here we tend to use River for a wide, fast flowing course (Niagara and Genesee) and Creek for those waterbodies not matching the size of either of those (although if you investigate an aerial of say the Monroe County area – Rochester, New York – you will see ‘Black Creek’ which almost approaches the Genesee River in size).

    Just curious as to the hole in the data for this region.

    Great map and having read many sections of “Names on the Land” I am always fascinated by the provenance of names.

    • Creeks and Rivers are dark gray on this map, which is why that region of NY shows up as a dark hole. The streams are there, they are just almost all named “creek” or “river”, as you mentioned. I should have made these a bit brighter, since they pretty much just look black on some monitors. Thanks for the comment.

  41. Dave Ivers

    It’s easy to tell that quite a bit of the Lower Illinois River Valley was settled from the WV, KY, TN area. Being next to two really big rivers means just about everything else that flows naturally is either a creek or a branch [big vs small]. Creeks always [to my knowledge] have names [Hurricane, Eldred, Macoupin] while many branches don’t. Branches are usually small enough to not hinder foot traffic but flow in all but the driest times. [We are right next to the River, and there are many spring-fed waterways.] When someone refers to “the branch” it is usually given a geographical indicator [“the branch up by the old Bushnell place” or “the branch where the Busch twins like to killed each other” it’s assumed the listener will be familiar with the location.].
    We have sloughs along the river, mostly referring to former river channels now blocked at both ends by the levees that were built for flood control. Although we have some of what would usually be called swamps, I’ve never heard them called that. They’re pretty uniformly part of the slough environment.
    We call man-made pools ‘ponds’ and natural pools ‘lakes’.
    We also call most of the openings in the river bluffs with water flowing through them hollows [or ‘hollers’]. The other openings are ‘ravines’ [water flows only after rains] or ‘gullies’ [water practically never flows]. [Therefore, a “gully-washer refers to a rain big enough to make water run where it normally never does. A really big damn rain.]
    And for flood control we have ‘road ditches’ [very small, 2-4 feet wide] ‘drainage ditches’ [small, 5-10 feet wide] that run into ‘bull ditches’ [large, up to 40 feet wide] that may end in a pond or slough [sometimes spelled ‘slew’] where the water is pumped by a pump house through large [44 inch diameter is common] pipes into the river. The ditches collect both run-off rain water and water from the underground ’tiles’ that drain the fields.
    Finally, I now live in Michigan, and in the west side of the state there are several “creeks” called ‘vliets’ which I believe is Dutch for creek or small river or some such. Of course, the Dutch settled that part of the state.

    • Ratt Boy

      Your last line is interesting, Dave. There’s a suburb of Albany, NY, named “Watervliet.” That, of course, is an area with a rich history of Dutch settlement, with lots of “kills.”
      Incidentally, there’s a stream in Southern VT called the “Battenkill River,” which strikes me as a tad redundant, similar to “Stonycreek River” in Pennsylvania.

  42. This is one of the coolest things i’ve seen all week. Who comes up with this stuff?

  43. Susan Buckley

    Love the maps. When I moved to the Baltimore area, I was disappointed to discover that Jones Falls and Gunpowder Falls (both referenced by highway signs) were very long streams but not actual waterfalls. How did you classify them?

  44. John Tayleur

    Just amazing! Not only is it geographical (and beautiful), it’s cultural, historical, linguistic…..if ever ‘a picture says more than a thousand words’, this is it. This ought to be the map to begin any course on what the US is all about.

  45. I just found this post via “A Way With Words”. I’m both a GIS analyst, and a word nerd. The way you have combined the two here is fantastic and beautiful.

  46. Amazing and fascinating work…

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