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River Thames, Mississippi River, Lake Michigan, Cayuga Lake: the Where and Why of Word Order

August, 2017 Language Matters

Why do the words “river” and “lake” sometimes follow the proper name, as in River Thames and Lake Michigan, and at other times come before them, as in Mississippi River and Cayuga Lake? Rivers and lakes have different sets of naming conventions.

Rivers

In British English, “river” almost always precedes the proper name: the River Thames and the River Severn. In North American English, “river” usually comes last: the Mississippi River, the Saint Lawrence River. British English speakers will usually use the American word order when referring to American rivers and sometimes to other rivers in the Americas, such as the Amazon River (though the British National Corpus also has instances of the River Amazon), but will refer to British, European and African rivers using the British order. North American speakers, on the other hand, will sometimes put the generic “river” first when referring to British rivers (River Thames), as per the local custom, but will sometimes reverse the order (Thames River), which sounds quite strange to British ears. Other Englishes show a mixture of the two patterns.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; oed.com), the traditional order in English is usually “river X”. Most sources before the late 17th century follow this pattern, although the OED lists a couple of instances of “river” coming last. G. Douglas’s 1522 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid refers to the Nylus ryver for example. The OED even lists a 1612 reference to the Thames Riuer by historian John Speed. On the whole, however, this word order remained rare until residents of the North American colonies began to use it in the 1600s.

Colonial North American English innovated the “X river” pattern, perhaps by analogy from river names containing a preposed adjective, such as Deep River and Red River, which would never be called River Deep or River Red, even if they were located in Britain.

Exceptions — Some rivers in the US follow the British order, such as the River Rouge and the River Raisin. These rivers are both found in Michigan, which was part of New France and they were originally named by the French, which may have influenced the word order in American English.

Linguist Lynne Murphy, writing for the blog Separated by a Common Language, also notes that British rivers follow the “X river” pattern when they modify another noun, as in Thames River fauna. However, a phrase like this is possibly analyzable as Thames modifying the phrase river fauna.

Murphy also mentions the construction “X rivers” in British English (as in Thames rivers), which refers to a river and its tributaries as a unit.

Lakes

Something different happens with the names of lakes. Many lakes in North America, the UK and the world have the generic coming first: Lake Michigan, Lake Tahoe, Lake Vyrnwy (Wales), Lake Titicaca (South America), but others have it coming last: Hollingworth Lake, Blagdon Lake (England); Stanley Lake (Idaho, US), Wollaston Lake (Saskatchewan, Canada). It is mostly very large lakes that have “lake” preceding the proper name: Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Athabasca, Lake Baikal.

It is important to note that names of lakes containing an adjective or a common noun modifier usually follow the standard order for English noun phrases, with the head “lake” coming last: Reindeer Lake, Island Lake, Great Bear Lake, Cayuga Lake, Seneca Lake, Cree Lake. The last three all contain common nouns referring to tribes rather than to individuals. The variation occurs mostly when the name of the lake contains a person’s name or another proper name.

Exceptions — Some lake names have descriptive adjectives coming after the noun, such as Lake Superior and Lake Placid. Most of these seem to be lakes that were first named or explored by the French, so one can assume a French influence on the word order, much like what one finds with North American river names.