Infographic Of The Day: How River Names Reveal Our Cultural Roots

Derek Watkins plots the many synonyms for "stream" on a map of the United States to illustrate the huge impact of cultural factors on how we label the natural world.

The list of words for America’s watery topography is as long as the Colorado. The terms vary wildly from region to region, and culture to culture: "brooks" in New England; "sloughs" in the Pacific Northwest, and "cañadas" in the Southwest, to name a few. That diverse nomenclature is the subject of this enlightening infographic by Derek Watkins:

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Watkins used data from the USGS National Hydrography Dataset to plot generic place names for rivers and creeks in color codes across a map of the United States. The key up top tells you which color goes with which name.

It doesn’t take much digging to realize that cultural factors have a huge impact on how we label the natural world. In turn, we can learn a lot about our roots just by zeroing in on geographic names. Note how much clustering you’ve got here: New York is peppered with dark blue (kills); the Gulf Coast and Louisiana have tons of lime green (bayous); and the southwest is scored with orange hues (arroyos, cañadas, and rios). These names reflect larger settlement patterns. The distribution of kills, a word that originates from Dutch, traces the colonial province of New Netherland in New York. Bayous figure prominently along French settlements in the south. And the Spanish-derived arroyos, cañadas, and rios echo the sallies of early conquistadors in modern-day New Mexico.

Not all the nomenclature is cut and dry, though. West Virginia is sliced almost perfectly in half, with runs in the north and branches in the south. A few states over, a lone patch of branches (a common term in Appalachia) dots the southwestern edge of Wisconsin. Watkins guesses it has 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." Any armchair historians among you with other ideas? Watkins welcomes comments on his website.

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  • David Kaiser

    Very cool, I would also love to see an infographic about "soda" vs. "pop" vs "coke," or perhaps "ya'll" vs "you guys" vs other regional variants like "yinz" and "yous," perhaps even over time as well!

    David Kaiser, PhD (the PhD is in linguistics, I love this sort of stuff!)
    Time Coach

    "Time to be Extraordinary!"

  • Ricardo Nabholz

    Alex: follow the asterisk: "River and creek... ...appear as shades of gray on this map"

  • Alex Keeny

    I feel like the northwest would have been much more filled in if they had included "creek."

  • Zc279

    This is very interesting, and shows a lot about cultural migration.  Just a few critiques about the graphic:  it would be enhanced if the legend was in some kind of order, either by color, by region, or at least alphabetically.  Also, since the title is about cultural roots, it would be better to include the language of origin of the term with the legend.  It's also terribly Euro-centric.  Many, many bodies of water in the US have retained their original Native American names.  It would be fascinating to analyze native to immigrant names along the same lines.  Lastly, it would be even more interesting to include the stories of human migrations within the regions.

  • Gl262

    Not to forget the path of rivers and streams they used to reach said destination.