What is the difference between these forms of moving water?

  • Creek
  • Brook
  • Stream
  • River

Are there other forms of moving water that I am missing?

  • 1
    Here's a map showing the distribution of generic "stream" words in the U.S.: derekwatkins.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/generic-stream-terms
    – JPmiaou
    Aug 31, 2011 at 14:12
  • And in case the link goes the way of all things, he has the following words: branch, run, fork, brook, kill, stream, bayou, swamp, slough, wash, cañada, arroyo, and rio. These all show distinct geographic groupings. He also has creek and river, but they're spread all over.
    – JPmiaou
    Aug 31, 2011 at 14:16

3 Answers 3


You missed run, burn and kill, bayou, and seaway. A canal also has moving water, but is man-made.

Generally, the difference is size: you can step over a brook, jump over a creek, wade across a stream, and swim across a river. But the distinction between them (especially creek and stream) is somewhat hazy, and depends on who named them and when they were named. A run (such as Bull Run in Virginia) is a "small stream". Streams and rivers named kill (from the Middle Dutch word kille) occur frequently in New York (and occasionally in nearby states), and were most likely named by the Dutch. Some of these have had "creek" or "river" added to them later (Catskill Creek, Fishkill River).

  • 2
    Catskill Creek and Fishkill River are in New York, not New England. The Dutch did not settle New England. Jun 25, 2011 at 3:23
  • 2
    +1 for making it clear that although size matters, there is no International Standards Committee to dictate even the absolute ranking order of the various terms available for "watercourse". Certainly nothing to say how big a streamlet can be before you call it a stream. And the river where I used to go fishing as a child is definitely a stream today, though I doubt the width, depth, and water flow rate have changed significantly. Jun 25, 2011 at 3:43
  • Pennsylvania has the Schuylkill River. Department of Redundancy Department.
    – JPmiaou
    Jun 25, 2011 at 4:32
  • 2
    @BlueRaja -- kill is pretty common in the NY area. My first impression when I heard then names Catskill and Fishkill, I thought of dead cats and dead fish :-). Run is common in some parts of the U.S., and burn is common in Scotland and parts of New Zealand. I pointed these out because these words have common meanings not associated with running water. And who has not heard of the Saint Lawrence Seaway?
    – Jay Elston
    Jun 25, 2011 at 18:59
  • 1
    And you left off slough (which many people won't even know how to pronounce). Sense (3) from Merriam-Webster: a creek in a marsh or tide flat. I think this may be an exclusively American use. Jun 27, 2011 at 22:49

Size matters. Here's a fairly good explanation:

The smallest body of water is the brook, a natural stream of water that is found aboveground and is often called a creek as well. A brook is usually a tributary (a small body of water that naturally flows into a large one) of a river, but this is not always the case. Some people also call these smallest bodies of water streams, although streams can flow underground or even in another body of water (like the Gulf Stream).

Brooks, creeks, streams can be tributaries of rivers. A river is a larger body of water that flows aboveground, in a particular direction, and usually has a large volume of water in it. (This varies, of course, according to rainfall and/or snowfall totals. A river will always have more water in it than a stream, however.) Rivers often flow into other bodies of water. For instance, the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Here are the differences as laid out by the Maine Geological Survey:

River - a natural freshwater surface stream of considerable volume and a permanent or seasonal flow.
Stream - any body of moving water that moves under gravity to progressively lower levels, in a relatively narrow but clearly defined channel on the surface of the ground.
Brook - a small stream or rivulet, commonly swiftly flowing in rugged terrain, of lesser length and volume than a creek. A term used in England and New England for any tributary to a small river or to a larger stream.

As to your second question, there's also:

canal, channel, branch, crik, rivulet, streamlet, brooklet, runlet, runnel, rundle, rindle, beck, gill, burn, sike, freshet, fresh, millstream, race, tributary, feeder, confluent, effluent, billabong, flow, and course (of course).

  • "Rivers often flow into other bodies of water", huh? You learn something new every day! (but to be honest, that wasn't it). Actually, I really hope someone here can tell me about a river that doesn't flow into another body of water - I bet they exist, but I certainly don't know of any. Jun 25, 2011 at 3:32
  • Sarcasm duly noted. In Australia during severe drought, some rivers dry up before they reach the ocean (eg Murray River) but this isn't the normal fate of river.
    – pavium
    Jun 25, 2011 at 6:31
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers -- There is the Santa Cruz River. It flows into the desert sands in the flat lands near Casa Grande, Arizona.
    – Jay Elston
    Jun 26, 2011 at 0:09
  • 1
    The Dead Sea is a body of water, so the Jordan doesn't cut it. According to Wikipedia, the Helmand feeds into Lake Hamun, and the Santa Cruz River is usually a dry riverbed. Jun 26, 2011 at 12:43
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers, There are many streams and even rivers which flow from surrounding mountains into the Great Basin of the western US. They dry to a trickle and even completely disappear, without flowing into any other body of water.
    – Phil Perry
    May 27, 2014 at 19:00

"Brook" and "Creek" mean just about the same thing, "a small stream" "Creek" is chiefly used in American English, and Australia.
"Brook" is more of British English.

"River" refers to a stream that is fairly large in size.

The confusion comes in "stream".

"Stream" can refer to a "small river or brook". But 'stream,' in general, actually refers to any flow of liquid, of any size i.e. The Gulf Stream, which is a massive current of warm water.

To sum up, a brook, creek, refers to "small streams", a river is a "large stream".

A "stream" is usually understood to be a "rivulet, or small river", unless specified to be a different stream i.e.Stream of blood, Stream of hot air in the atmosphere, Gulf Stream, etc.

  • 1
    I don't know about Australian but in British English, creek usually means tidal inlet.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Jun 25, 2011 at 1:37

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