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Posted by on Aug 26, 2011 in Featured Maps | 9 comments

Naming Rivers and Places

A map doing the rounds at the moment (thanks to a plug from flowingdata) is Derek Watkin’s brilliant map of “generic” terms for rivers in the United States (below).The map shows how different cultural and linguistic factors have influenced the naming of geographic features in the US. For example French settlers named the streams they encountered “bayous”.



The number of rivers in the US, combined with Derek’s brilliant design, make this a really compelling map. Inspired by this work I have quickly (with much less cartographic flair) extracted the major rivers and streams in Great Britain from the Ordnance Survey’s Strategi dataset and coloured them according to whether they are a “river”, “canal” (not sure if this really counts in terms of naming), “water”, “afon” (Welsh for river) and “brook”. You can see that a clear geography exists. I was not surprised by all the “afons” being in Wales but I was surprised to see so many “waters” in Scotland.




On the topic of naming, settlement names also have a clear geography as they, like rivers in the US, reflect the different settlers (or invaders!) of the British Isles over millennia. The map below (taken from my thesis) shows the different naming influences on settlements in Britain. The most striking aspect is the abrupt end to the Viking settlement names along what is called the Danelaw Line. So if you live north of this line you will be using more Viking words on a daily basis than those to the south. There are loads of people studying and recording the different place naming conventions in Britain- I would recommend you check out the “Institute for Name Studies” if you want more information.



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  1. Coming from the Isle of Lewis, I’m surprised to not see blue dots to indicate Viking settlements as a good number of the names here have a norse origin although many have been Gaelicised.

    Try running through the Strategi data with the name ‘Abhainn’ as this is the Scottish and Irish Gaelic for river, there should many results

  2. Thanks for the link James! This is cool stuff; it’s really interesting to see the correlations between US and UK naming practices.

    I wonder if/how the patterns on your settlement names map would show up on a comparable map of the US? Maybe we’d find a stronghold of Viking-influenced village names founded by immigrants from the Mercia region…

  3. I think there’s more of a gradient in UK names. In Bristol, near wales, there’s a River Avon; there are a few more elsewhere (Devon; the midlands, Glenavon in the Cairngorm). The OS dataset may say “river”, but the use of Avon as the proper noun implies the Celts named it first. Then there’s “dun” -fort- which spans the southwest -Dunster, Dundry, Dunstable, to Scotland: Dùn Éideann; Edinburgh. Similarly, Cwm in welsh degrades to Coombe in the S/W of england: the sound is the same; the spelling has changed.

    Then there’s the places with Roman names -I don’t see them on the map.


    (form resident of Hampstead, Londinium; Stockbridge, Dun Eideann; Clifton; Brigstowe/Bristol, Hotwells, Brigstowe and now Cotham: the placenames remember)

  4. and what of ‘beck’ and ‘ghyll’?

  5. As an American, I am much struck by how low the water-name diversity is in England south of Lothian, and how low their density is on this map, compared to e.g. the US east of the Mississippi. From here, it looks as though your data set does not include as many small or insignificant waterways as the US dataset, and thus that the two sets are not, in fact, comparable.

    From my side of The Pond, it would be *very* interesting for you to map the names of insignificant streams only — specifically, to not include any watercourse called a “river”. It does not seem credible to me that the wide variety of terms used in US stream names — especially in the Eastern US — do not reflect a variety in the terms used in England. It may also be that the US watername diversity preserves the diversity found in England in the 17th and 18th century.

    Poking around the Ordnance Survey, I observe that there are plenty of watercourses not called “river” in e.g. East Anglia — but the great majority of them are too small to get any mapped name at all. I will eat the Puritan steeple hat of your choice if the locals do not have names for those streams, even if the Ordnance Survey does not consider them worthy of note.

  6. Doc S: you may have a nibble or two. Demographic changes may be responsible for the absence of stream names, but I can think of various small streams that haven’t got names. They may have had names pre-1800, and lost them in the urban and suburban developments since, including channelisation, and renaming as part of rebranding an area.

    For example, Boundary Brook, once known as a county/parliamentary boundary between Birmingham and its Staffs neighbours, has completely disappeared but for a channel through Black Patch Park in Smethwick.

    Other streams have no record of being named.

    Aside from that, there are peculiarities of naming that will skew the results. A river in one locale may be smaller than a brook in another. So the total numbers of waterways with a given toponym may be very different in character.

  7. Doctor Science: Something seems to have gone wrong in the generation of the UK map. I live in Norfolk and can see several glaring anomalies locally. The large rivers Yare and Waverny are missing in stretches miles long and the disused and often choked North Walsham & Dilham canal seems to have been included despite wider waterways (Oulton Dyke etc.) being left off.

    In fact if you look closely you can see the imprint of the missing yare and waverny on the topographical(?) map underndeath as a darker grey (southeast of the canal).

  8. It should be noted that in Lincolnshire the terms Beck, Dyke (Dutch) and Eau (French) all occur, and the rivers Foss, Ouse and Avon all exist in multiple places, and that even when mapping shows the Rive ——, that the river is probably unecessary.

  9. I’m not convinced about the namings of English watercourses on the maps.

    I’m aware of a good number of canals, named as such, but all those are man-made watercourses.

    I can’t recall ever having seen a natural watercourse referred to as a canal.

    Case in point, the canal listed near Dungeness is the Royal Military Canal – a man made structure.


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