27 January 2011

"The river Thames"

I recently posted an article about the impressive cleanup of the Thames, and raised the question of why that river (and other English rivers) are often identified as "the river Thames" rather than "the Thames river" (or Thames River).  It is apparently a classic American English / British English difference.  Kniffler was able to provide and excellent link on the subject, from the separated by a common language blog:
Before the late 17th century (according to the OED), the normal way to refer to rivers was the River of X... From the late 17th century, the of started to be dropped, so then we get the River X, as in the River Thames, the River Clyde, the River Cam, etc. But what else was going on in the 17th century? Oh yeah, the English coloni{s/z}ation of North America. So this is about the time when we'd expect to see transatlantic differences starting to develop...

BrE speakers generally use the American word order when referring to American rivers. One doesn't hear the River Mississippi much... and this seems to extend to the rest of the new world--BrE prefers Amazon River (7 British National Corpus hits) over the River Amazon (2 hits), but really prefers just the Amazon (over 300 hits). For European and African rivers, it's River X all the way...

I've had a quick look for rivers in the US and UK that have the same name, but haven't succeeded in finding any--but we can see what happened when the English River Avon went to Canada and Australia. According to Wikipedia, the New World versions are Avon Rivers.
Elsewhere the same blog addresses the differences between "The University of X" and "X University."
People outside the US often get American university names wrong in this way, since elsewhere University of X and X University are synonyms. Thus in the UK, University of Essex and Essex University are two names for the same thing. But in the US, University of X may very well be the name of a different university from X University. Some examples:

University of Miami is in Florida; Miami University is in Ohio...

University of Washington is in Washington State; Washington University is in Missouri.

New York University is a private university; {City/State} University of New York is city/state-funded.

University of California is in California; California University is in Pennsylvania.


  1. People OUTSIDE the US??? I grew up in Oxford, OH, home of Miami University which was a university when Miami, FL was a swamp. I swear that 99% of Americans can't get that right.

  2. You are right in that we in the UK tend to preface every river with the word 'River'. In to common use of the language this is used across the world except where the national language is also English, then we follow the local practice. In other countries we follow the UK practice and I have rarely heard the Amazon referred to as the Amazon River in normal speech.

    Many UK place names were taken to North America but towns were new and rivers already existed so I imagine that indigenous names would have stuck. However, there is a London Ontario and that is on the Thames River. The different practice helps to avoid confusion between the two cities.

    The UK naming of universities is made more complex by the fact that individual colleges are given, rather than the university, in London, Oxford and Cambridge and the city name will be added at the end. Thus University College London, more usually just UCL.

    Thanks for referring to British English: being told that we speak International English is a bit annoying, over here.

    Roy, Thamesbank Trust.

  3. As an IUP alum, I would be remiss to not pick a particular nit. It's not Indiana University, it's Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Nobody calls it just Indiana University. I believe the same is true for California University of Pennsylvania. Having "of Pennsylvania" be part of the name doesn't help the confusion much (especially with the Purdue satellite school IUPUI out there), but the town Indiana after which the school takes its name existed about twenty years before the state Indiana, I am told.

  4. The university in Bloomington, IN is Indiana University, not the University of Indiana.

  5. Thanks for the heads-up re IU and IUPUI. I should have spotted that myself, since I used to work for them...

    Deleted with an ellipsis.

  6. I went to the University of Washington in Seattle, WA (called "u-dub"), but our rival was Washington State University, in Pullman, WA (called "wazzu").

    In Washington state we have lakes such as Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Green Lake. It's hard for visitors to keep them straight.

    Here in Germany they avoid saying "River X" -- they say just "the Rhein" and "the Wupper" but if they are speaking of a creek they say "Beuler creek" or "Oberhausener creek."


  7. Thanks for pointing out the IU/IUP error. Now acknowledged on my blog.


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