Open Dictionary word of the week: riparian

Posted by on December 15, 2011

riparian (adjective)

1 relating to people or things that are associated with, inhabiting, or situated on the bank of a river
2 a legal term denoting or relating to the legal rights of the owner of land on a river bank, such as fishing or irrigation
(Submitted by Raghu Char from Australia)

This one took me by surprise. I’d never heard it before and am not overly familiar with Latin so after looking it up and discovering that the etymology of the word is from the Latin riparius – of a river bank – it does make perfect sense. But I have a confession to make: I thought, at first glance, that the definition would look more like this:

riparian (adjective)
relating to people who have reached a ‘ripe old age’ and are ready to drop off the tree of life

A sample sentence:
He’s a riparian, bless him. It won’t be long now.

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Comments (5)
  • English also has some other riparian words (riparian in the sense of definition no. 1: “associated with ….. the bank of a river”).

    The word ‘river’ is descended from Latin ‘ripa’, originally meaning ‘bank’ (of a river) rather than the water itself. Hence also ‘riviera’, referring to the land, not the water.

    Your ‘rivals’ are, etymologically, the people who use the same stream or river as you – for drinking water, fishing, washing etc. It’s interesting that this etymology, together with the way the meaning has developed, encode the notion that neighbours are necessarily competitors!

    The word ‘arrive’ is derived from ‘ad ripam’ (‘to the bank, to the shore’) and is a reminder of times when far more journeys than today, ranging from river crossings to lengthy voyages, involved using boats.

    And, last but not least, the verb ‘derive’ itself is a metaphorical extension of ‘derivare’ (de+rivare) meaning to draw off water from a source.

    So this little flotilla of words, which have meandered variously through Vulgar Latin, Italian and French, been subject to assimilation and fricativisation on the way, and been washed up on the shores of the English language, all spring from the same source.

    And, as regards the imagined meaning of ‘riparian’ “relating to people who have reached a ‘ripe old age’ and are ready to drop off the tree of life”, I suppose the next stage is RIP-arian, i.e. someone who’s already dropped off!

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 16th December, 2011
  • Thanks for taking the time to write your comment Jonathan – so interesting to read! RIP-arian, indeed.

    Posted by Laine on 18th December, 2011
  • Jonathan, that really is completely fascinating – thanks. Now if I’m perturbed by the prospect of ‘rivals’, I’ll just picture myself at the riverside, giving them a gentle push and …. splosh! 😉

    Posted by Kerry Maxwell on 19th December, 2011
  • Funny that is a word I have always known and seen used in official documents too. I wish you well in your ongoing search for “new” English words, Laine. I loved the spin put on it as in RIP, and would make a wondefrful crossword clue!

    Posted by Margaret Hansmann on 21st December, 2011
  • This word always makes me chuckle, as it reminds me of Hyacynth Bucket (the snobby star of BBC’s “Keeping up Appearances.” This hostess, in an attempt to impress people, forced guests to haul furniture and food great distances along a canal, to enjoy one of her picnics with “riparian entertainment.” 🙂

    Posted by Alannah on 22nd December, 2011
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