Time, my patience and space would fail me were I to attempt encompassing within the modest ambit of this column all the river words of English. Instead, beside a forest brook, embanked upon a mossy boulder of streamside schist, I have selected five exotic and three familiar water words to explicate – a gloss on the moss, so-to-speak.

The slippery fluidity of our word river flows into the English wordstock just after the Norman conquest of 1066 CE, derived from French rivere and rivière, themselves ultimately from the classical Latin word for ‘riverbank’ ripa, through a number of later, intermediary forms like post-classical Latin riparia ‘land on a riverbank.’ Think of the still common English legal term, riparian rights, laws that govern ownership and use of land beside a river. A diminutive form naming a small brook or stream is rivulet.

Flowing fresh water coursing along an earthen bed is a stream, with word relatives in most of the Germanic tongues: Dutch stroom, modern German Strom, Swedish ström and Danish strøm. The Indo-Germanic verbal root is *sreu- and *srū-‘to flow.’ Connected is the very old name of a river, the Rhine, belonging to a group of river names from a Proto-Indo-European related root that loses its initial sibilant, namely *rei- ‘to move, to flow, to run.’ Cognate words related to English stream are scattered throughout Indo-European, like Sanskrit sravati ‘it flows’, Greek ῥέειν rheein ‘to flow’, Greek ῥεῦμα rheuma ‘a flow’ (rheumatism is originally a flow or discharge of excess humours from the body) and Russian struja ‘stream.’

A forceful current of fresh water as in a stream whose volume burgeons after a heavy rain, a spring snow melt or a quick flood is a freshet. It appears to be an obvious diminutive of the adjective fresh or perhaps from an earlier French phrase like fontaine frechette, ‘a natural spring of fresh water’ or ‘a spring near a grove of ash trees.’

Lotic & Lentic: Hydrology Twins
Recent additions to ecology and hydrology are the descriptive adjectives lotic and lentic. Lotic refers to little creatures who live in rapidly flowing fresh water.

We do not know the moment of creation of most English words. Readers who think Shakespeare was the first to use many, many words forget that first printed or written sources in many, many cases have been lost. But we are aware of the verbal dawn of lotic and lentic. Lotic was coined in 1916 by the science teachers and writers J.G. Needham and J.T. Lloyd in their book The Life of Inland Waters: an elementary text book of fresh-water biology for American students. Here’s the quotation: “Organisms … may be roughly divided into two primary groups for which are suggested the following names: I. Lenitic or still-water societies. II. Lotic or rapid-water societies.

 Lotic the scientists made from a Latin noun lotus ‘washed,’ past participle of lavare ‘to wash,’ a root verb that gives us words like lotion and lavatory. Lotio, lotionis in classical Latin meant ‘an act of washing” and later in English post-classical Latin it referred to the water used in washing. Lavatory was originally a place where we ‘washed’ after ‘doing our business,’ a room-name whose clean sound permitted fastidious defecators to use a euphemism, thus banishing all vulgar thoughts of excrement. As any alert reader might guess, the Victorian English, with their loathing and horror of all bodily functions, came up with lavatory as a polite way to say toilet. Among other British attempts to disguise shitting was water-closet or W.C.

Other words from Latin lavare are volcanic lava, “washed down” from eruptions and the little washing bowl on a stand called a lavabo (Latin “I shall wash” (my hands). It also names a Roman Catholic prayer used during a ritual washing of hands in certain masses. From lavare too is the fancy, mostly poetic verb to lave ‘to bathe, to wash,’ as in Sir Walter Scott’s pretty line from The Lady of the Lake (1810) “And, when the midnight moon did lave Her forehead in the silver wave.”

Lentic refers to organisms who live in still ponds of fresh water. The word stems from Latin lentus ‘calm, slow.’ A synonym is the adjective lenitic, from Latin lenitas ‘mildness.’

This is a verbal intrusion into the English language from the Viking invaders, the Danish and Norwegian pirates who invaded northern England. From Lincolnshire to Cumbria beck is still a common dialect word for stream or brooklet. The language the Vikings spoke is called Old Norse and its word for stream was bekkr. Compare Dutch beek, modern Swedish bäck and modern German Bach, including the locational surname of the great composers, whose founding ancestor perhaps lived beside a stream.

This Germanic word for a fountain, spring, stream or river was common in Old English and might have been re-enforced by the Vikings’ similar term brunnr. A spelling variant still around in northern English is bourn.

Rindle & Rundle & Runnel & Rill
The word rundle is a mere variant of rindle. Both are rare words for a small stream or rivulet. Rindle appears to be a derivative of runnel with an infixed /d/. Runnel in origin is a Germanic diminutive ‘a little run of water.’ Compare modern German Rinne ‘a channel, a gutter’ and Old English rynel ‘stream, brook.’ Often runnel names the smallest of fresh-water courses, a tiny stream slipping between pebbles. A possible diminutive form of the Germanic Rinne is the now chiefly poetic English noun rill ‘a small stream, a trickle of any liquid.’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892 CE) wrote “The Brook” and conceived it as larger than a mere runnel but sharing characteristics. The Victorian Poet Laureate for most of Queen Victoria’s reign was a master of rippling, lilting, water words. Here I conclude with dippings from “The Brook.” Hern is a dialectical contraction of heron.

“I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.
. . .

I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.

With many a curve my banks I fret
By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
With willow-weed and mallow.

I chatter, chatter, as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.
. . .

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,
Among my skimming swallows;
I make the netted sunbeam dance
Against my sandy shallows.

I murmur under moon and stars
In brambly wildernesses;
I linger by my shingly bars;
I loiter round my cresses;

And out again I curve and flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever."

 Tennyson seems to have been inspired by Ecclesiastes 1:4. In the sonorous King James version of the Old Testament, it reads “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” Moderns might append “until, that is, the denial of climate change.”

Bill Casselman, September 04, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Increase your English vocabulary by knowing these terms associated with fresh flowing water

Bill Casselman