Is It A Creek Or A Brook?


Water is such a crucial aspect of survival and has been such a strong focal point for mankind since time immemorial. It’s natural that we have so many names for it. Rivers, brooks, creeks, springs, and other terms are only some examples. If there is a form of moving water that’s at least somewhat different from another one, the chances are good that we have a name for it. Still, if you’ve ever caught yourself wondering what all those different words really mean and how you can tell the difference, you’re not the only one. This article will help you do just that. 

What are Rivers?

The question might feel redundant at first, since, after all, everyone knows what a river is, right? A river is certainly something that’s defined and has particular characteristics that distinguish it. In general, rivers are a result of accumulated water that moves downhill from higher elevations. As such, gravity is the key factor at play, and that’s the simplest explanation.

All of that water can come from a few sources, but the most common one is rain. During rainfall, the water that doesn’t seep into the ground will always flow downhill and find its way to certain points of accumulation, which are usually rivers but are also often lakes and similar bodies of water. The water that flows into rivers is also referred to as precipitation runoff or watershed. On the other hand, the water that seeps into the ground eventually forms groundwater.

This is a natural system that ultimately transports most of that water to the sea, as that’s where all rivers ultimately lead. Streams, creeks, and such tend to be the tributaries of rivers, and individual rivers can either lead directly into the sea or into other bigger rivers, which then flow into a sea or ocean.

With that said, the natural terrain of a certain area can dictate that all of this flowing water makes its way into an area that is surrounded by higher ground on all sides, which is one of the ways in which lakes form. Another way in which “lakes” can form is when people build dams to choke the flow of a river to a certain degree, in which case that body of water is actually called a reservoir.

Rivers are also characterized by their usefulness in many ways other than just providing drinking water. Since mankind first settled and engaged in any form of sedentary life, rivers have been the connection between distant communities. Rivers have always been used for trade, transport, irrigation, controlled flooding, and even as natural barriers. It is no surprise that the first sophisticated human civilizations emerged around life-sustaining river systems such as the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates. Later on, rivers became generators of electricity and, in some locales, they have birthed and sustained major trading hubs. If there is a city or any other kind of big settlement built around it, it’s definitely a river.

The Difference between Rivers, Streams, and Creeks

The difference between the various terms that we use for flowing water largely has to do with size. The general populace understands this too. You will rarely encounter anyone who would look at a major river like the Mississippi or the Nile and refer to those as creeks, however uninformed they are on the subject. Most of the time, we simply know a river when we see one.

A line needs to be drawn somewhere between the definitions, though, so there will be some bodies of water that are close to those lines. The general rule of thumb is that the rivers are the largest, and creeks are the smallest, while streams fall somewhere in the middle.

Keeping in mind what we mentioned earlier about how and why rivers are formed from water that flows downhill, creeks and streams are part of that process. Namely, as that water starts to make its way downhill, it will naturally take certain paths, one of which is a creek. This is the initial form in which the water flows, and numerous creeks will eventually merge into streams, and streams will then join rivers. Streams can be relatively big, especially compared to creeks. Some streams can have enough volume or power to keep a mill going, for instance, which is something that streams have been used forever.

With all that said, the truth is that there is no sort of official guidelines to define these terms strictly and clearly based on this, such as width or water volume. Not only that, but there can also be subtle linguistic differences between American English, which we are focusing on here, and other nations in the Anglosphere.

In addition, keep in mind that folks like Geologists might use the term “stream” for any water that flows under the influence of gravity. As such, even rivers can be viewed as big streams, even though the volume and power of their water flow often make them distinct. E especially in the case in mountainous areas where rivers make their way through rough, steep terrain and thus accumulate great power and develop very strong currents.

Because of all this, it’s best to keep in mind the general rule of thumb and the characteristics of rivers that we discussed earlier. On top of that, reserve the term “creek” for especially small streams, and you will usually be accurate.

General Wisdom Definitions For Springs And Artesian Wells

Another common characteristic of most rivers is that they are not easy to cross, and some of them can easily be deadly during such attempts.

 One of the most important characteristics, however, is that rivers are navigable by boats and other vessels. Streams and creeks are shallow most of the time. Despite the fact that somewhere along their flow, you might find a deeper section, it is generally impossible to put a boat into a stream and commence to row downstream.

When it comes to crossing, a stream is something you can usually cross without much difficulty. You might have to get your feet just a bit wet, but you will be across in no time. If there are rocks sticking out of the water, which is often the case with streams, you can even stay dry.

Creeks are generally to streams what streams are to rivers, and smaller yet are brooks. Popular wisdom tends to suggest that you can swim across a river, wade through a stream, jump across a creek, and simply step over a brook. With allowance for some common sense and certain outliers in some contexts, this wisdom tends to hold true. Even if a river seems to allow you to wade through it in some sections, it will still likely knock you over at some point, which will almost never happen in a stream.

Something else you should keep in mind is how the precipitation runoff process influences where streams and these other smaller forms of flowing water will appear. Since brooks, creeks, and streams are the forms that water takes on while it flows downhill into rivers, this means that you will usually see streams and these smaller variations in hilly and mountainous areas. That doesn’t mean you’ll only ever find them there, but if it fits at least some of the above criteria and is located in the hills, it’s probably a stream or something smaller.

The Hierarchy Of Rivers, Streams, Creeks, And Brooks

As you can see, the hierarchy generally consists of rivers, streams, creeks, and brooks, in order of size and power. However, as you might already know, these terms are subject to certain local variations all over the world, with significant variations existing even within the confines of just the US.

One term for what is usually a small stream in some parts of the US is a “run.” This term can be found in names of certain places like Bull Run, VA, but it is also found in Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, and other states. It can also sometimes be next to a “creek.” Some of the local terms in the US don’t even come from English, such as “kill,” which comes from the names given by the Dutch, from the Middle Dutch word “kille,” meaning “riverbed.” This is a common occurrence in New York, with one example being the Catskill Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River.

In all, your best bet is to consider streams as subordinate to rivers, while everything else falls under streams. Not to be confused with things like channels, canals, springs, or artesian wells, though. While these terms might often technically refer to moving water, they are certainly not rivers or streams.

What is A Channel

A “channel” is a rather broad term that refers to a passage where water can move through, on top of all the other well-known meanings that the word has. Canals are waterways, usually artificial, which have been strategically cut through certain areas to allow ships and boats to pass. A famous example is the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, removing the need for ships to travel all the way around Africa.

Spring Versus Artesian Well

Springs and artesian wells, in the simplest terms, are places where underground water comes to the surface and can be used by people or animals. The general difference is that springs are natural, while artesian wells are artificial. This kind of well is dug deep in order to reach sections of underground water where the hydrostatic pressure of the water itself will make the water flow upward.

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