River, River

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

‘River’, Joni Mitchell

Watching Robson Green walking coast-to-coast along Hadrian’s Wall (a journey I made in September 2019) I was struck by the incongruity of him spending an afternoon fly-fishing on the River North Tyne. It’s not that he obviously did not carry a set of waders and a fishing pole in his rucksack, it was the name of the river he waded into.

Something sounded so wrong. I’ve spent too long in the States.

Why River North Tyne and not North Tyne River? I had no problem with River Tyne, River Thames, or River Avon. It was the three words in that order that jarred.

Then, a sudden realization, American’s *always* put River after the name, the British before.

It sounds equally wrong to say River Mississippi, River Columbia, or River Sacramento as it does to say Thames River, Avon River, or Tyne River. Just not, to my ears, River North Tyne.

Likewise, who gets to decide when to call a watercourse The Mississppi, The Thames, or The North Tyne?

Then there’s Thamesside, Tyneside, and Humberside. But not Mississippiside, which just has one too many s’s in it.

The Banks are, however, agnostic to culture. The Banks of the Mississippi and the Banks of the Tyne both work–unlike the Royal Bank of Scotland which plainly didn’t.

Divided by a common language

Fortunately, smarter people than me have looked into why this is, even though it is, in the end, a mystery:

Once upon a time, river names in English usually included the word “of.” So instead of “River Jordan” (in modern British usage) or “Jordan River” (in American usage), you would have found “River of Jordan” (written something like “rywere of Iordane”).

Many of the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations for names of rivers, dating from the late 1300s, include “of.” Chaucer in 1395, for example, wrote of “the ryuer of Gysen.”

This practice of including “of” in river names, the OED says, wasn’t the only way of naming rivers, but it was “the predominant style before the late 17th cent.”

At that point, “of” began to drop out of river names, and British and American practices started to diverge.

In proper names, the word “river” commonly came first in Britain, but last in the American Colonies. In other words, most English speakers simply dropped “of,” but Americans reversed the word order as well.

While “river” has occasionally appeared at the end in British writing, this was “uncommon,” the OED says. Most of Oxford’s citations for “river” in last place are from the mid-1600s and after, and most are from North American sources.

As things now stand, the OED explains, the word “river” appears first “chiefly in British English referring to British rivers and certain other major, historically important rivers, as the Nile, Rhine, Ganges, etc.”

In North American usage, however, “river” comes at the end except sometimes in “certain other major, historically important rivers” like the ones mentioned above.

But we haven’t addressed the question “Why?” Why does usage differ in Britain and America? Why did the Colonists prefer “James River” and “Charles River” to the reverse?

We can’t answer that. But certainly, the style adopted by the Colonists wasn’t unknown in the mother country.

Source: Grammarphobia

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