Fork, brook, run? A neat toponym visualization by a UO geographer.

At work a few weeks ago, we were having a conversation about how different areas of the country pronounce the word “creek.” There is the urban pronunciation, “creek,” and the rural pronunciation, “crick.” The argument was over whether or not these two bodies of water were actually geographically different or just indicative of cultural influence in pronunciation (dialect shift). Language is a funny thing, and linguistics is an interesting science, but none of us are linguists. We agreed to disagree.

Soon after, I stumbled upon this map by my former classmate and University of Oregon geography student Derek Watkins. Using the USGS National Hydrography Dataset, Derek symbolized bodies of water based on their toponyms, or generic place names. The patterns, as he points out in his blog post accompanying the map, are mostly well-explained, outlining historical trails, settlement patterns, and tendencies of weather:

Lite-Brite aesthetic notwithstanding, I like this map because it illustrates the range of cultural and environmental factors that affect how we label and interact with the world. Lime green bayous follow historical French settlement patterns along the Gulf Coast and up Louisiana streams. The distribution of the Dutch-derived term kill (dark blue) in New York echoes the colonial settlement of "New Netherland" (as well as furnishing half of a specific toponym to the Catskill Mountains). Similarly, the spanish-derived terms rio, arroyo, and cañada (orange hues) trace the early advances of conquistadors into present-day northern New Mexico, an area that still retains some unique cultural traits. Washes in the southwest reflect the intermittent rainfall of the region, while streams named swamps (desaturated green) along the Atlantic seaboard highlight where the coastal plain meets the Appalachian Piedmont at the fall line.

A quick aside on map design: The whole point of a map is to disseminate information. There is a tendency among amateur cartographers to want to make water blue, land green, and labels black. But if the information that the cartographer is seeking to convey requires further classification, it can be a benefit to the reader to make these elements, for lack of a better word, obvious. A visual hierarchy exists in the brain. We see things in a certain order depending on how they are displayed. It is for this reason that Derek chose a dark background with bright hydrological features because that is the part of the map he wished you to focus on. Cartography secrets revealed!

Incidentally, the comments section actually addresses the “creek” vs. “crick” issue. Derek created the map using the Geographic Naming Information System (GNIS), a national standard for, yep, you guessed it, geographic naming. Did you know there’s a U.S. Board on Geographic Names? If you were ever a GIS intern, the answer is probably yes. Regardless, this map only displays the names as approved by this body, not the colloquial nomenclature, meaning that this map, although totally awesome, does not help me or my colleagues determine the answer to our question.

In closing: are creeks and cricks the same thing? According to the United States government, yes. But as far as the cultural and regional lexicon? We may never know.

EXTRA CREDIT: For the etymology of the word “creek,” check out this post from the Online Etymology Dictionary.