In a cowboy song the narrator, who is riding an old paint (spotted horse), says the dogies (motherless calves) "feed in the coolies & water in the draw." Where do they feed, and where do they water?



The more common spelling of the first word is coulee (though cooley and coolie are also both found). It is a North American dialect term for a deep ravine (originally ‘lava flow’—a somewhat unusual semantic development). The OED has a slightly more detailed definition:

“In the Western regions of Canada and the United States: A deep ravine or gulch scooped out by heavy rain or melting snow, but dry in summer.”

According to them, “Sense 2 [the ravine, rather than the lava flow] appears to have arisen among the French trappers in the Oregon region”, though their citations for the ravine sense predate their citations for the lava sense by about 30 years.


In this sense, a draw (look under the noun section, sense 6) is –

“A gully shallower than a ravine” (Merriam-Webster)
“A natural ditch or drain that draws the water off a piece of land. Also, a shallow valley containing a stream.” (OED)

As far as I know, neither word is in particularly common widespread usage (I’ve never personally heard draw used in this sense, though the comments indicate that it is more common than I thought), though I expect they may be in certain particular areas or vocations.

  • 1
    Good answer! +1. Except that in my experience, "coulee" is very rare; much rarer than "draw". As to "draw", urbanites have little need for the word, whereas those who work the land do use it -- because they need the word for descriptive purposes. As a programmer, I find that I use many words on a daily basis that non-programmers haven't ever even heard before. – Cyberherbalist May 27 '14 at 17:43
  • 1
    Coulee and draw are synonymous, both referring to shallow ravines, gullies, or washes. In the arid lands of the American west (where the cowboy rides old Paint) the soil at the bottom of canyons, coulees, washes, draws, ravines, etc. holds moisture longer in the dry season, allowing grass to grow there. Also, those low places were more likely to have water. – GMB May 27 '14 at 18:05
  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coulee says that the origin is French, for water flow. It doesn't mention lava flow -- do you have a source? Coulee is often associated with the huge basalt flows of Washington, but still refers to water flow over them. Ironically, in French-speaking Louisiana, it is sometimes misspelled as coolie, a term more often applied to Chinese laborers (may be considered derogatory). – Phil Perry May 27 '14 at 18:51
  • 1
    There is a dam and national landmark in the US called "Grand Coulee" – Oldcat May 27 '14 at 19:21
  • 1
    @Phil Only what the OED and ODO say. I'm on my phone right now and don't have OED access, but I believe the oldest citations were related to lava. Coulée in French just means ‘flow’, without indicating what is flowing at all. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 27 '14 at 20:07

From my own experience, growing up in the US mountain west: "draw" is pretty common, at least as much so as "ravine." I'd define it as a drainage smaller than a canyon.

"Coulee" is very common in the Northwest US, particularly Washington state (cf. the Grand Coulee, as someone mentioned), and in fact, having lived in Washington for a number of years, I think of it as a northwest localism. It tends to be used instead of "canyon," particularly of a flat-bottomed canyon with steep sides. As used there at any rate, a coulee is not a small or shallow feature!


Coulees are larger, deeper, and have steeper sides than draws. The Grand Coulee Dam was built at the narrowest point between ravine/draw/coulee walls.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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