English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What's the difference between a fen and a dale? Are these words used precisely at all?

My question comes from Kipling’s poem The Spirit of England; if you'll notice, each couplet, plain and hill, towns and downs seem to be opposing, and I was wondering if that were true for woodland and fen and dale.

I summon to battle from plain and hill,
From woodland and fen and dale,
From my reeking towns and greyhound downs
My men to be cast in the scale.

share|improve this question
Off Topic: Are you on a questions rampage? :D – Alenanno Apr 29 '11 at 11:09
These are not even slightly similar. – Marcin Apr 29 '11 at 13:34
up vote 29 down vote accepted

From Wikipedia regarding dale:

A dale is a valley. The word dale comes from Old English dael and is related to Old Norse dalr.

enter image description here

And fen:

A fen is a type of wetland fed by mineral-rich surface water or groundwater.

Fens are characterised by their water chemistry, which is neutral or alkaline, with relatively high dissolved mineral levels but few other plant nutrients. They support a wide range of animals and plants, many of which are tall marsh plants growing closely together.

enter image description here

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
Haha, answers in pictures, guaranteed hit :) – Benjol Apr 29 '11 at 12:01
Often worth a thousand words. ;) – Grant Thomas Apr 29 '11 at 12:05
+1 not for the pictures, but for the etymology. Background information is always good. – Tynam Apr 29 '11 at 16:49
Arguably, on a site dedicated to linguistic expression, resorting to images is a cop-out. :) – Tom Auger Apr 30 '11 at 3:04

They are both related to geography but have different meanings and are also somewhat geographically specific.

A fen is a type of wetland. In Eastern England there is an area known as The Fens that although now largely drained typified this sort of geographical feature.

Dale means valley and is part of many place names, mostly in the North of Britain. The Yorkshire Dales is an upland region in Northern England.

share|improve this answer
+1, I grew up in The Fens :) – Benjol Apr 29 '11 at 12:00
Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. – Malvolio Apr 29 '11 at 17:10

A fen is wetland, but it doen't have to be particularly lower than the surrounding land. A dale is a valley, and it doesn't have to be wet.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.