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Unlike mountain names, where "Mount" always precedes its name, e.g. Mount Everest, I've noticed that some rivers have "River" before its name, e.g. the River Nile but others have it after, e.g. the Colorado River. How does one decide where it should be and how did the difference come about?

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"Nile River" isn't uncommon; as of now, it's 3x more popular than "River Nile". –  Daniel Jun 1 '12 at 17:09
    
@Danielδ Try that with the River Styx and you’ll get a seriously different answer. Also, for rivers that retain their Spanish name, like the Rio Grande, you never invert that. But we do say the Colorado River now in English where once it was the Rio Colorado. –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 1:09
    
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

There is no such rule, and for that matter, there is no rule about the position of Mount either; there's Rocky Mount in my part of the world, and many Appalachian peaks are known as Nnn Mountain. It is a matter of convention. The same goes for many other geologic or hydrologic features: the Leyte Gulf but the Gulf of Mexico, Loch Lomond but Alemoor Loch, the Isle of Wight but Portsea Island.

That said, Nnn River is the far more prevalent form in the U.S.; it would be quite rare to hear of the River Missouri or the River Columbia in prose. This is also true of other American terms for streams, e.g. branch, brook, run, kills (though not so much for lakes). This format may then carry over to foreign names, unless the entire foreign name is borrowed in whole: thus Americans usually known the Rio Amazonas as the Amazon River, but it is the Arroyo de la Laguna east of San Francisco Bay and not the Laguna Arroyo.

As JeffSahol noted, you can somewhat sidestep the question for rivers by referring to them with the definite article: the Hudson, the Platte, the Potomac.

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I live in the United States and I'm a few hundred feet from the River Raisin. For any given geographic feature, there is a conventional way to express the name. No one would say "The Mountains Rocky", it's always "The Rocky Mountains". But likewise no one would say "Washington Mount", it's "Mount Washington". Once a place name is established, it's very rare for anyone to create variations on it. –  Jay Jun 1 '12 at 18:28
    
Staten Island has the Kill van Kull, but that's still Dutch. –  Eric Jablow Apr 24 '13 at 9:41
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Interesting...note that rivers are denoted by the definite article "The", though. The Colorado, as distinguished from Colorado, the state. Mountains' names, without the definite article, tend to need their "honorific" to distinguish them from other proper names or ordinary nouns...with exceptions, as noted below in the comments.

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But not many people would read "Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest" as referring to a former Surveyor-General of India. –  Andrew Leach Jun 1 '12 at 18:13
    
I wouldn't say so for mountains without anglicized names. We say "the Matterhorn," not "Mt. Matterhorn," and "Aconcagua," not "Mt. Aconcagua." –  choster Jun 1 '12 at 18:20
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I suspect British English tends to put river (and the definite article) before the name. It’s always the River Thames, and not Thames River. Mountains are sometimes preceded by Mount, sometimes not. It’s always Mount Snowdon, but it's Ben Nevis (not Mount Ben Nevis) and the Eiger (not Mount Eiger).

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It's "the River Don" in the UK and "the Don River" in Toronto. –  JAM Jun 1 '12 at 18:24
    
Whether or not it's Mount Snowdon (and I for one only ever talk of climbing Snowdon), it's not Mount Ben Nevis for the same reason it's not Mount Everest mountain. –  TimLymington Jun 1 '12 at 21:57
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