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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
  • The answer is here. – Hot Licks May 22 '16 at 21:07
  • Is it not syllables? One or two syllables and it's River Foo, else it's Foo River? – Ard Mar 14 at 23:17
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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
  • When I've seen Nnn Mountain on maps of Appalachia, typically it marks a ridge (or other extensive height) rather than a peak, or that's my impression. – Anton Sherwood Feb 8 '17 at 8:05
  • @AntonSherwood That could be the case, but it also follows the general pattern of the country's Peaks, Knobs, Balds, Hills, Stars, and Domes, and occasional Flat, Butt, or Crayon. – choster Feb 8 '17 at 15:23
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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. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Jun 1 '12 at 21:57
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    Ben is Scottish Gaelic for Mount. – Ben Kovitz Mar 21 '15 at 21:16
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    Apparently, Swindale River, Brennand River, Whitendale River, Mells River, Broad River, Pill River, Willet River, Little River, East Lynn River, West Lynn River, Sturcombe River, East Okement River, West Okement River, Abbey River, Trevillet River, De Lank River ... brook the trend [ Wikipedia]. River Wriggle or Wiggle River predictably cuts both ways. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 24 '15 at 20:50
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    @TimLymington It is actually neither Mount Snowdon, nor Snowdon to the people who live by it. They call it Yr Wyddfa. – WS2 May 22 '16 at 20:58
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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.

  • 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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Most rivers in England are "River Foo" but there are exceptions e.g. "Moors River". Streams are always "Foo Stream". Foreign rivers are variously called "Foo River", especially if the author is N American, "River Foo" if the author is e.g. British, but most often just "the Foo" or "the Foo river". This information is gleaned from various book-based searches of river names at Google Books.

  • I don't think that, e.g., "River Mississippi" or "River Colorado" would ever be considered correct, even by a British English writer or speaker. – David Richerby Feb 7 '17 at 18:47
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The difference, it seems to me, is that Old World rivers have their own names (often personified as a god or nymph) but colonists typically named rivers after something (e.g. Hudson River after Henry Hudson; Swan River, formerly Black Swan River, where someone saw such a bird for the first time) or descriptively (Little Twisty Green River). "Mississippi River" (among other native names) is anomalous in this view, because the name belonged to the river first; I can only suppose that it was absorbed into the now predominant pattern, perhaps after a State was named after it.

In a phrase like "the river Thames", the R ought not to be capitalized in my humble opinion.

  • "River Thames" is always capitalized, just like "Mount Everest". – David Richerby Feb 7 '17 at 18:46
  • There may be a good reason to capitalize the River Thames but that ain't it; the analogy is flawed for the reason I mentioned: Mount Everest is named after someone (and thus needs its distinguishing prefix), the Thames isn't. – Anton Sherwood 6 mins ago – Anton Sherwood Feb 8 '17 at 8:07
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    Fine then, Mount Sunflower, named after the flower, not a person. This is not the place for peddling your own personal theories about how English ought to be. – David Richerby Feb 8 '17 at 10:21
  • What is the Thames named after? – Anton Sherwood Feb 9 '17 at 19:02
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    As far as I can see, nobody really knows but it doesn't matter. The convention in English is that "River Thames" is a proper noun and is capitalized. It doesn't matter if there's a reason or not; that's just how it is. The language is defined by its usage, and usage is that the word "river" in the names of rivers is capitalized. – David Richerby Feb 9 '17 at 19:28

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