Last year, University of Oregon geography graduate student Derek Watson had the bright idea of mapping the generic names (toponyms) of streams in the USGS National Hydrography Dataset as they appear in the lower 48 states. The result – Mapping Generic Terms for Streams in the Contiguous United States – as Watson describes it, was a “lite-brite aesthetic” of otherwise blue-line streams or, in this case, branches, runs, forks, brooks, kills, streams, bayous, swamps, sloughs, washes, cañadas, arroyos, and rios.
As Watson points out (and so deftly illustrates), the toponyms reflect not only a geographic but cultural influence to cartography. For example, the bayous trace the historic French settlements of the south, while the rios, arroyos, and cañadas mark the northward movement of the conquistadors from Mexico into the southwest. Still, it should come as no surprise that rivers and creeks float to the top of the list of common stream names.