Q: I hope you can shed light on something that has bugged me ever since I noticed it. Here in the UK, rivers are referred to as the “River Thames,” “River Avon,” and so on, whereas in the US they are referred to as the “Potomac River,” “Mississippi River,” etc. Is there a reason why?
A: Once upon a time, river names in English usually included the word “of.” So instead of “River Jordan” (in modern British usage) or “Jordan River” (in American usage), you would have found “River of Jordan” (written something like “rywere of Iordane”).
Many of the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations for names of rivers, dating from the late 1300s, include “of.” Chaucer in 1395, for example, wrote of “the ryuer of Gysen.”
This practice of including “of” in river names, the OED says, wasn’t the only way of naming rivers, but it was “the predominant style before the late 17th cent.”
At that point, “of” began to drop out of river names, and British and American practices started to diverge.
In proper names, the word “river” commonly came first in Britain, but last in the American Colonies. In other words, most English speakers simply dropped “of,” but Americans reversed the word order as well.
While “river” has occasionally appeared at the end in British writing, this was “uncommon,” the OED says. Most of Oxford’s citations for “river” in last place are from the mid-1600s and after, and most are from North American sources.
As things now stand, the OED explains, the word “river” appears first “chiefly in British English referring to British rivers and certain other major, historically important rivers, as the Nile, Rhine, Ganges, etc.”
In North American usage, however, “river” comes at the end except sometimes in “certain other major, historically important rivers” like the ones mentioned above.
But we haven’t addressed the question “Why?” Why does usage differ in Britain and America? Why did the Colonists prefer “James River” and “Charles River” to the reverse?
We can’t answer that. But certainly the style adopted by the Colonists wasn’t unknown in the mother country.
The earliest OED citation with “river” following a proper noun is from about 1460, in a poem by John Lydgate mentioning the “Rodamus Ryuer.” And as late as 1612, the historian and cartographer John Speed mentions the “Thames Riuer.”
All we can say is that somehow a usage that was uncommon in England was transported to the New World and took hold.
As for earlier etymology, “river” can be traced to the Latin riparius (of a riverbank), from ripa (bank). It has more distant ancestors in the Greek ereipein (to plunge down) and in an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as reip.
Interestingly, as John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “A heavily disguised English relative is arrived, which etymologically denotes ‘come to the shore.’ ”
“River” entered the language by way of Anglo-Norman and French, first appearing in written English around 1300, the OED says. But the word was part of people’s names as far back as the 11th century.
The OED says it is “attested earlier in surnames, as Gozelinus Riuere (1086; 1084 as Gozelinus de Lariuera), Walter de la Rivere (c1150), Johannes de la Riviere (1166), Willelmus de la Rivere (1200), etc.”
However, Oxford adds, “the early examples certainly, and the later probably, reflect the Anglo-Norman rather than the Middle English word.”
If you’d like to read more about rivers, we had a posting in 2011 about selling someone down the river, and one in 2010 about the differing US and UK pronunciations of Thames.
Finally, all this river talk may have left you wondering about the name “Riviera,” which we now use for the Mediterranean coasts of southeastern France and northwestern Italy. That name, first recorded in the 18th century, comes from an archaic use of “river” to mean a coast or seaboard.
Time to book a vacation!
Check out our books about the English language