A Chinese friend of mine says that in Chinese there are no different words for canal and river, and that they are the treated as the same noun. A canal would be a man-made river if you had to distinguish. In English I think they are distinct terms and that they are both types of waterway, if I wanted a generic term.

So am I right in thinking that a canal is not a type of river?

  • 1
    While the existing answers are correct about the technical uses of these words, I would like to point out that if a native English speaker came across a canal but did not know it was artificial they would likely call it a river, a stream, or a creek because these are words for waterways. 'Waterway' is more technical and not really common speech. – called2voyage Jul 9 '14 at 20:43
  • 1
    But the question is quite simple: Is a canal a type of river? No, it isn't. Yes it is like a river. A mouse is like a rat, but it isn't a type of rat, nor does its similarity automatically extend the definition of 'rat' to include 'mouse'. I don't see how providing obscure examples of hybrid river-canals, fjords that happen to have 'Canal' in the name, actually answer the OP's question. (Although they are interesting :) ) – decvalts Jul 9 '14 at 22:14
  • @called2voyage: It's common speech in the name of the Woodlands Waterway in The Woodlands, TX. That's probably because it has an alliterative appeal that "canal" doesn't. – Dan Jul 10 '14 at 4:41

A canal is a man-made waterway. You are right in thinking that a canal is not a type of river in English. A river (in this sense) is a natural waterway, and waterway is a useful generic term to use to describe these kind of features, whether they are man-made or not.

From the OED, in sense 6a (which I think is most appropriate to the original question):

canal, n. An artificial watercourse constructed to unite rivers, lakes, or seas, and serve the purposes of inland navigation. (The chief modern sense, which tends to influence all the others.)

  • 2
    One minor caveat: there's an admittedly rare overlap because natural rivers can be "canalised". The canalised section of the River Lea which flows through London near my house is often referred to as a canal, at least for that section, but is also still the River Lea. So IMO a canal can, if rarely, be a type of river. – Rupe Jul 9 '14 at 13:42
  • 2
    Good point, there are examples of hybrid canal-rivers, but in general, I still wouldn't consider the definition of a canal to be a type of river. Though all three (rivers, canals, canalised-rivers) could be considered waterways in this sense. – decvalts Jul 9 '14 at 13:51
  • 2
    While @Rupe is correct regarding canalised rivers, these are usually known as a "Navigation", in Britain at least. You have the Lea Navigation, the Trent Navigation and so on. This is normally the case where locks have been placed on a natural river to make it navigable. – Chenmunka Jul 9 '14 at 17:44
  • 1
    I didn't see @JohnLawler's comment before I posted my answer to this question. – Cyberherbalist Jul 9 '14 at 22:01
  • 1
    @John Lawler One could argue that Hood Canal isn't a canal in the same way that John Smith isn't a smith. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '14 at 22:04

Their main difference of 'artificial waterway' vs 'natural waterway' is clear from their etymology. Actually canal comes from Latin "canna" (reed).


early 15c., from French canal, chanel "water channel, tube, pipe, gutter" (12c.), from Latin canalis "water pipe, groove, channel," noun use of adjective from canna "reed" (see cane (n.)). Originally in English "a pipe for liquid," its sense transferred by 1670s to "artificial waterway."


early 13c., from Anglo-French rivere, Old French riviere "river, riverside, river bank" (12c.), from Vulgar Latin *riparia "riverbank, seashore, river" (source also of Spanish ribera, Italian riviera), noun use of fem. of Latin riparius "of a riverbank" (see riparian). Generalized sense of "a copious flow" of anything is from late 14c. The Old English word was ea "river," cognate with Gothic ahwa, Latin aqua (see aqua-). Romanic cognate words tend to retain the sense "river bank" as the main one, or else the secondary Latin sense "coast of the sea" (compare Riviera).

Suorce: http://www.etymonline.com/

  • You may be dismayed to discover that there are several fjords on the northwest coast of North America which have "canal" in their names. See my answer. – Cyberherbalist Jul 9 '14 at 22:00
  • At risk of invoking Muphry, you misspelled the word Source. – Magus Jul 9 '14 at 23:14

Specifically to add a note of discordance to the otherwise useful distinction of river and canal as natural vs manmade waterways, I submit for your perplexity a natural waterway near my place of residence. It is called Hood Canal. It is a fjord that was formed about 13,000 years ago by the Puget lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet.

enter image description here

In fact, it is not the only natural waterway named "canal". There are several other examples in North America:

  • Behm Canal, U.S. state of Alaska
  • Gardner Canal, British Columbia, Canada
  • Lynn Canal, U.S. state of Alaska
  • Pearse Canal, part of the Canada-United States border at Alaska
  • Portland Canal, British Columbia, Canada

So, one must include in the category canal: a natural fjord.

  • 4
    Not necessarily. Misnomers are well known. The creature called a 'king crab' is not even a crustacean, never mind a crab. A peanut is not a nut. Mincemeat usually contains no meat. Why should we insist that Hood Canal (Casiquiaire Canal etc) be true canals? – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '14 at 22:19
  • @EdwinAshworth, I grant you the possibility of a misnomer X 6. Perhaps they were all named by the same explorer? I would never give the descriptor canal to a natural waterway, but I live in 2014. My suggestion in my comment to decvalt's answer is that at one time canal and channel were equivalent, and hence are agnostic as to whether natural or manmade. I'm probably wrong, however. Giovanni Schiaparelli's description of the canali of Mars, which was translated into English as canals led many to assume Schiaparelli had described artificial structures when he had not. – Cyberherbalist Jul 9 '14 at 22:44
  • @EdwinAshworth, as to mincemeat not containing any meat, I would point out that the word meat has only recently taken on the exclusive meaning of flesh. At one time meat was a generic term for foodstuff, and mincemeat was not at all a misnomer. Sorry, but I must correct you about king crab, too. While not a crab, a king crab is nevertheless a crustacean. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_crab – Cyberherbalist Jul 9 '14 at 22:48
  • (1) Misnomers often result from semantic shift (ie this subset weren't always misnomers, but they are now). There is no necessary implication that the term was in any way erroneous. [see the excellent Wikipedia article.] (2) For 'the creature called' please read 'one creature sometimes called': The Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, is a marine chelicerate ... The term "king crab" is sometimes used for horseshoe crabs ... ( Wikipedia ). – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '14 at 23:02
  • Wow, didn't know that about horseshoe crabs! Can't see why anyone would think to use the term "king" to describe the creature. Oh, well. Always nice to mince words with you, @EdwinAshworth! – Cyberherbalist Jul 9 '14 at 23:11

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.