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We have had a lot of flooding in the UK in the last week or two, with reports, among other things, of rivers 'bursting their banks'.

The verb 'to burst' implies 'breaking or splitting as a result of internal pressure or puncturing' (ODE). But that is not what happens when a river floods. The water simply rises above the banks and floods the surrounding countryside.

So why do rivers 'burst' their banks? What would be a more accurately descriptive way of saying it?

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When the expression first arose, it seems that "overflow" and "burst their banks" do not appear to have been synonyms. From Google Books, 1817: The rivers Caldew, Eden, Peterill, Line, Irthing, &c. &c. have overflown or burst their banks. – Peter Shor Jan 6 '14 at 22:58
What do you mean 'better'? It works just fine for most people. What are your criteria for 'better'? Shorter? more formal? Less visually arresting? Why do people still 'hang up' their phone? – Mitch Jan 6 '14 at 23:00
Looking at the uses of burst its banks in the late 18th and early 19th century, I believe there was a distinction then. If a river overflowed, it simply flooded the surrounding countryside. If it burst its banks, it created a new stream of rushing water (in addition to the old one) which could not just flood things, but could carry them away. – Peter Shor Jan 6 '14 at 23:08
Consider also the metaphorical usage burst out (in the sense of speaking). Nothing is actually broken. – Colin Fine Jan 6 '14 at 23:33
I don't understand the problem. When dictionaries recognizes a definition of a word to mean "(for a river) to overflow", then why shouldn't a journalist use that word in a headline or news story? The fact that the word happens to mean something else in other contexts doesn't change it's validity. It would be like asking "Why do they call it a heart attack, when attack means when one army fights another?" Call the usage metaphorical if it makes you feel better. Moreover, you've answered your own question, in a way; if you don't like burst, what's wrong with flood? – J.R. Jan 7 '14 at 10:01
up vote 5 down vote accepted

A common term is US usage is overflow

(especially of a liquid) flow over the brim of a receptacle:

[with object]: the river overflowed its banks

In many places, water is contained by dikes or levees and these are prone to bursting. Theses are more often lakes or inland seas than rivers, but some broad rivers are contained by levees. See this discussion of the Mississippi Levee System. Also a discussion of the Danube bursting its levees in Germany.

In those cases, the river may well burst its banks (fracture the levees). However, this may or may not apply to the rivers of England.

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No, the idiom (in the UK) does not imply that the banks have sustained lasting damage: they may have, but not necessarily. – Colin Fine Jan 6 '14 at 23:32
@ColinFine Yes I agree. The main river in question recently has been the Severn, and as far as I know it always emerges from these floods in the same state it was before. But I think it's an important point that bib makes. – WS2 Jan 7 '14 at 7:47

Might this be linked to the drainage of the English Fens? It was a project which was attempted on and off for centuries, but it involved the cutting of new channels (Wikipedia says that the old and new Bedford rivers were two prime examples) with raised banks, to stop the water from pouring back over the reclaimed lands. This project was largely completed by 1820, a few years after Peter Shor's quote. In this context a burst bank would be different to an overflowing river, as the quote implies, and would be an accurate description of what has happened.

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This has nothing to do with the use of the word 'burst' which is what the question asked. – Chenmunka Jan 30 '15 at 15:38
While I don't agree with @Chenmunka, an answer with no more endorsement than 'Might it be ...' is not adequate on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 10 '15 at 14:50

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