Of Naming Rights and the Nature of Rivers

I have wondered for some time how it is that folks decide what to do when two or three rivers come together. More specifically, how they decide on the name to be conferred upon that particular stream of water after the confluence.

For example, when the Allegheny, Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers join at Pittsburgh, was it just for convenience of spelling that folks decided that what kept going downstream from there would be called the “Ohio River?” Fewer letters, fewer syllables, simpler spelling and more convenient pronunciation? Makes sense, but then wouldn’t “AlMoOh” have worked just as well? “Allenongohio” was definitely out. While hyphenation might be the solution in some marital unions, the folks who have to paint signs for bridges would have had a conniption over what happened in Pittsburgh!

It certainly wasn’t ease of spelling that let “Mississippi” take precedence when said Ohio River joined it several hundred miles downstream. Is it just a matter of who’s bigger when they meet? Depending on recent rains upstream, I’m not sure the Mississippi is always sending more of the upper United States down to New Orleans when it meets up with its cousin at the pointed edges of Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri.

Of similar situation though smaller scale is the intersection of the Smoky Hills River and the Republican River near Junction City, Kansas. We recently passed by that connuberance on our way to a wedding rehearsal in Manhattan. Maybe that’s what got me to wondering about the naming rights in our culture.

Sometime a long time ago, the residents of the area or at least the ones who had a say in such matters, decided not to give prominence to either river. In fact, per their decision, neither river continues from that point on. I suppose “the Smoky Republican River” would fail to convey the sort of respectable image the dignitaries and other influential denizens of the area might desire. I’m pretty sure if it got put to a vote today in Topeka, it’d definitely be known as the “Republican River.” Instead those folks from back whenever decided the mingled waters that flowed from that point on would be known as the “Kansas River.”

Allegedly also known as the Kaw River, it slides, jags and jogs east for about a hundred-and-fifty miles. It ends, so to speak, at Kansas City, when it yields its stream—and surrenders its name—to the Missouri River. Even though the Missouri would never become what it is without the contributions of the Kansas, that’s just the way of the world as we know it.

Every river has its tributaries and those vary from other rivers that may rival the namesake in size, length and volume to the nameless ditches and tiny creeks that also feed into the system. It’s not the nomenclature or the recognition that measures our contributions to the flow of the stream. Every bit counts and every one of them does its part to add to the river—and depending on the exact nature of the rain—to also do its part to carry for a while the erosion of the fields and cut away at the banks.

Rivers and marriages are a continuous interaction of influence and terrain, each shaping the other, remaking what has been given into some new form, bearing what is born from all that it has been through and all that has come into it. Though each may be called “over” at some point, life still bears proof of their existence.

They all carry forward old ways, customs and habits born of ancient channels and yet occasionally cut a new path when the load of what must be borne becomes more than what can be carried through the old paths. And yet even in that, even in the raging flood, it is still a river.

And such it will be when it returns to quieter times.

H. Arnett

About Doc Arnett

Native of southwestern Kentucky currently living in Ark City, Kansas, with my wife of twenty-nine years, Randa. We have, between us, eight children and twenty-eight grandkids. We enjoy singing, worship, remodeling and travel.
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