Word roots and routes: river, stream, canal

Posted by on May 05, 2014

© Macmillan Education / Stuart CoxNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

In the course of my visits to Britain in the 1990s I noticed that train conductors were starting to use ‘arrive to’ in place of the traditional ‘arrive at’ in their announcements – e.g. ‘We will shortly be arriving to Leeds.’ This usage proved to be a passing fashion, and was quickly superseded by ‘arrive into’, which continues to be popular: ‘We will shortly be arriving into Leeds.’

But arrive has undergone much bigger changes during its journey through history. Nowadays you can arrive at a destination by any means of locomotion: by train, by plane, by bike, by boat, on foot, on horseback … . Until the 16th century, though, you could only arrive by boat. The word river now means a large natural watercourse, but it originally referred to the bank of a river rather than the water itself, and to arrive was to reach a river bank or, more generally, to reach dry land after crossing water.

In contrast to river, the Riviera, a name for part of the Mediterranean coast, preserves the older reference to land rather than water.

Less obviously related to river is rival. Rivals were originally neighbours who lived on the banks of a stream or river and who would, naturally, often be in competition with each other for the use of the water – for transport, fishing, agriculture, trading and so on.

The element rive also appears in derive, which originally meant to draw off water from a source, for example to divert a stream into a new channel.

The word stream has distant Greek relatives in catarrh, diarrhoea and rheumatism, all conditions which involve a flow of liquid. Stream itself is used widely used as both a noun and a verb referring to a flow of liquid, gas, people or things – e.g. a steady stream of visitors / traffic / cars. A torrent and a trickle are literally a very energetic and a very feeble flow of water respectively, but they also have much wider uses – e.g. a torrent of abuse, a trickle of applications.

Streaming enables your computer to receive information as a continuous stream. A jet stream is a fast-flowing air current high in the atmosphere. Streamlining is literally a procedure in which a vehicle is given a shape which will minimize air or water resistance; to streamline a procedure or a business is to make it simpler or more efficient.

Canal, an artificial watercourse, is closely related to channel, which has many extended uses both as a noun and as a verb – e.g. channels of communication, channelling money or resources into a project. Other relatives of canal and channel are cane (the hollow stem of certain plants), the noun can, which is a cylinder for containing a liquid, and cannon, which also has a cylindrical shape, though for an entirely different purpose: all examples of how words which started from the same source can arrive at very different destinations.

Next in this series: scribe

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