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Mountain Home Magazine

What's in a Name?

For twenty-five years Pine Creek has enjoyed designation under the state’s Scenic Rivers Act as—you guessed it—a scenic river. Of the twelve other waterways also named as scenic rivers, only two have the word river in their name—three are runs and the rest are creeks.

How can it be a scenic river if it’s a creek, I’d always wondered? Why is the Tioga River, which in most places is narrower and shallower than Pine Creek, a river and not a creek? (And flows north to boot—more on that in a minute.) What about brooks and branches, mill races and licks? And kill (think Schuylkill River)—where in the world did that term come from?

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) database (who knew such a thing existed?), which is the official repository of geographic names in the United States, classifies all “linear owing bodies of water” as streams. When it comes to these streams there are at least 121 other generic terms to fit a “broad category.” The GNIS database goes on to say it uses sixty-three broad categories of features and feature types to aid in the retrieval of entries with similar characteristics from the database. Then, in 1952, a professor from Columbia University came up with a twelve-part identification system for streams. Whew! Sounds way more complicated than it needs to be.

Over at the United States Geological Survey, where scientists study the country’s landscape, natural resources, and the hazards that threaten them, the consensus is that there are no official definitions for generic terms as applied to geographic features. I think that means, in a nutshell (nutshell is not an official definition), that we don’t all agree on “official classification standards” for things like moving water and large upright chunks of land (how big does a hill have to be to be considered a mountain, anyway?). We can, however, usually understand what the other guy is talking about. Regional linguistic anomalies and vernacular peculiarities give us cricks and runs and billabongs and courses—they’re all flowing water, precious and beautiful and full of life.

And, yes, by the way, water does flow north. There are more than thirty rivers—or streams, creeks, etc.—in the United States with that directional oddity, including our own Tioga River. The Tioga actually starts out flowing southwest from Bradford County, then takes a little jog in Blossburg and heads north toward the New York border. Other well-known north-flowing waterways are the Willamette River in Oregon and the Monongahela in West Virginia. Egypt’s Nile and Germany’s Rhine also flow north.

Oh, and remember kill? It is from the Middle Dutch word kille meaning riverbed or water channel.

Time for a swim! 

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