When it comes to place names the vast majority, especially those in the United Kingdom, have been coined in the last 1,500 years. But with river names the origins are invariably much older, indeed many are so old they are completely unknown.
Yet that these names are so old it does allow us to trace the evolution of modern languages and work back through time to perhaps glimpse something of the theoretical parent tongue, known as Proto-Indo-European, which is held to have given rise to the various language groups across not only Europe but also the Indian subcontinent and parts of the Middle East.
Looking at the major river systems of the world, starting with the longest and then that which holds the most water.
Nile - is not only the longest river in the world it is also one of the oldest proven geographical names still in existence. It is thought to be from a Semitic-Hamitic word nagal meaning (as is the case with so many river names) simply ‘river’. Note the Egyptians called it the Ar or the Aur meaning ‘black’ and a reference to its colour when heavy with sediment.
Amazon - is not named for its size, but from a Tepiguarani word amazunu meaning ‘big wave’. This is a reference to the famous bore which can wreak significant damage to the lower reaches.
Yangtze-Kiang – takes its name from the ancient city of Yangchow with the Chinese kiang meaning simply ‘river’.
Mississippi – is from an Algonquian word meaning ‘great river’. In 1542 the Spanish called this the Soto Rio Grande or ‘the big river of Soto’, he being Ferdinand de Soto who led the Spanish expedition here three years earlier.
Missouri – thought to be a Native American, probably Dakota, word meaning ‘muddy’ and aptly named considering the volume of silt carried by this tributary of the Mississippi.
Yenisei – a river in Siberia which is rarely heard of as it flows north into the Arctic Ocean and thus frozen solid for much of the year. Oddly it comes from a Turkish loan word iondessi and means ‘big rver’.
Huang He – means exactly what its English name suggests, the Yellow River being named for the volume of silt it carries.
Ob – as with the Yenisei, a Siberian river flowing north into the Arctic Ocean. This time the name most likely comes from the Iranian ab meaning ‘water’, although some sources give it as a local Komi word meaning ‘aunt’.
Irtysh – a tributary of the Ob, the name has three possible origins of which the most likely is Mongolian from ertis meaning ‘river’. While Kazakh ir tysh ‘to dig the land’ and possibly referring to irrigation seems more likely when it comes to spelling, that the Kazakhs were not here until well after the name was in use makes this unlikely. There is also Bashkir yrtysh meaning ‘rushing’, although this does not describe this slow-moving river at all.
Parana – not only the name of a river but a city and a state. However ultimately all are named from the river, which is named from a native word para meaning, once again, ‘water’.
Congo – a major river which does not have a name referring to water in any way, not does it refer to the country through which it flows. Both are named from the source of the river, the Bantu kong meaning ‘mountains’. In recent years the river has been known by its local name of the Zaire, za being the root and meaning ‘river’.
Mekong – should probably be understood as referring to ‘main water’ with the second element related to Sanskrit ganga meaning ‘river’.
Mackenzie – is named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie who sailed up here when voyaging to the Arctic Ocean in 1789.
Darling – is named after the governor of New South Wales from 1825 to 1831, Sir Ralph Darling, by Captain Charles Stewart who was deemed to be the first European to sight the river.
Niger – comes from a Tamashek word n-gheren meaning ‘river among rivers’.
Volga – the longest river in Europe may have a list almost as long of possible meanings. Among the suggestions are Slavonic vlaga ‘moisture’, Estonian valge ‘white’, Finnish valkea ‘bright’, and Russian veliki ‘great’.
Euphrates – is from the Greek spelling of the original name of Purattu, itself from the Assyrian ur at meaning ‘father of the rivers’ and understood as being the mightiest.
Yukon – a native word meaning, somewhat predictably now, ‘big river’.
Indus – comes from the Sanskrit sindhu meaning ‘river’ and losing its initial ‘s’ thanks to both the records of the Romans and the Greeks.
Brahmaputra – again possibly from Sanskrit, perhaps meaning ‘son of a brahmin’ but every chance there is an earlier unknown word or phrase.
Danube – that one of the longest rivers in Europe is named from a Sanskrit word shows the close relationship between these tongues derived from the Proto-Indo-European language. Here Sanskrit danus meaning ‘damp’ or Avestan danu ‘current’ are the most likely beginnings.
Zambesi – as with the Zaire za is the first element, here combining with another to give ‘big river’.
Ganges – from Sanskrit ganga meaning simply ‘river’.
Ural – named from the mountains where it rises, likely from Tatar ural meaning ‘girdle’ and used in the sense of a ‘belt’ separating Europe from Asia.
Dnieper – not named from the simplistic ‘river’ but a Latin version of the earlier Sarmartic don ipr and literally meaning ‘river river’.
Irrawaddy – is thought to be from Hindi airavati or ‘elephant river’.
Seine – an evolved name which pre-dates the Roman name of Sequana (but is the earliest recorded) and is thought to mean ‘calm, quiet’ and describes the nature of the river.
Orinoco – takes the Guarauno word meaning ‘the place to paddle’ and thus named from the upper reaches where it is navigable only be small boats.
Tigris – one of the oldest names in the world which can be explained. While the meaning is generally accepted to refer to its fast-flowing current, especially in comparison with the Euphrates, and speaking of ‘arrow, spear’, the language which provided the name has several candidates including Sumerian, Sanskrit, and Old Persian and most likely pointing to a common ancestor for them all.
Limpopo – if it is named from its upper reaches then this is Matabele ilimphopho or ‘the river of the waterfall’ or, if named from the lower reaches, the ‘crocodile river’ which is its alternative name.
Volta – is a late name given by Portuguese explorers and first seen in 1714 as Rio de volta. This is either seen as ‘river of return’, if describing a turning point, or ‘turning river’ if remarking on its winding course.
Rhine – from Old High German ri ‘to flow’ and Gaulish renos ‘water’.
Loire – a name which can be traced through the Roman name of Liger to the Indo-European lig meaning ‘to flow’.
I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.