Valleys and Gullies

By Mark Nichol

A variety of words serve to describe geographical features characterized by low-lying terrain between higher elevations of land. This post lists and defines many of these terms.

Valley, ultimately from the Latin term valles by way of Anglo-French and Middle English, most generically describes such an area, a length of the surface of Earth or any other solid planet or natural satellite that separates hills or mountains or through which a river system often flows. The word may also describe an artificial feature resembling a valley, such as the line along which two sloping portions of a roof meet, or may be used figuratively to refer to a low condition or point, often part of the phrase “peaks and valleys.”

Vale is a variant with the same etymological origin, used more in poetic contexts than prosaic ones, such as when it is employed as a metaphor for the world in the phrase “vale of tears.”

Canyon, occasionally seen with the spelling of its Spanish source cañon (probably from an obsolete Spanish word derived from the Latin term callis, meaning “path”) refers to a deep, narrow, steep-sided valley or something suggesting such a feature, such as a street passing between two rows of tall buildings. Cirque, meanwhile, from the Latin word circus, meaning “circle,” is such a feature in mountainous terrain forming a basin at the end of a valley.

A combe (the word is also occasionally spelled coombe or coomb) is a deep, narrow valley or a basin adjacent to a hillside. The word, used mostly in British English, is of Celtic origin; in Welsh, it is spelled cwm.

Dale and its similar-looking cognate dell, both of which derive from Old English, describe a small grassy or forested valley; the word is delated to Old High German tal, which, as part of the name of a location where German coins were minted, inspired the word dollar. Both dale and dell are used primarily in poetic or archaic usage, such as in the phrase “hill and dale,” although the use of dell in the traditional song “Farmer in the Dell” likely stems from an unrelated Dutch word.

Dene, also from Old English, is a British English term for a low-lying area, and dingle shares a language origin and a definition with dale and dell. Old Irish, meanwhile, contributes the word glen, meaning “valley.”

From the Latin term gurga comes gorge, which refers to a narrow area such as a canyon floor or part of it. (Gorge has several additional meanings, such as “throat or stomach” and “something that chokes a passage,” and as a verb it alludes to the former sense, meaning “eat or partake of in large amounts.”) Gulch, probably from the Middle English word gulchen, refers to a steep cut in the land, as does gully, which likely stems from the Latin word gula by way of the Middle English term golet, from which gullet is also derived. (Gully may also refer to a small water-formed natural trench.)

Hollow, from the Old English word holh, from which hole is also derived, describes a small basin or valley. In American English dialects, it is sometimes pronounced (and spelled) holler.

The Latin term rapina, meaning “rapine,” is the source of ravine, referring to a steep-sided valley between a gully and a canyon in size. The connection between the name of the geographical feature and a word associated with assaulting and plundering is the sense of rapina of “sweeping away,” in reference to the action of water rushing through it.

One type of valley is a rift valley; the term rift, from a Scandinavian word for “fissure,” describes the low-lying area between two roughly parallel geological faults or groups of faults.

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4 Responses to “Valleys and Gullies”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Wow, this is quite a collection of words, with their background meanings, having to do with the small to huge channels that are formed on the Earth, mostly by the flow of water or wind (erosion) – and sometimes by volcanic or tectonic activity. Thank you. There are so many of them that it is likely to leave some out, too.
    Another word for such a thing is a “rill”, or “rille”. Also, when large canyons or rifts are found in the bottoms of the oceans, they are just called “trenches”.
    When good telescopes were developed, astronomers noticed features on the surface of the Moon, sometimes sinuous in shape, that looked like they had been formed by erosion. They borrowed the word “rill” or “rille” for these. Of course, there aren’t any significant atmosphere or water on the Moon, so the rills were probably formed by volcanic activity, or perhaps by collisions with asteroids in the distant past.
    Two astronauts from the Apollo Program visited an area with a rill named “Hadley’s Rille” to explore and to take samples of the surface minerals.
    It is also noteworthy that many of the words that you mentioned are ancient, short words: four-letter words, and sometimes five:
    dale, dell, vale, dene, glen, rift, gorge, gulch, gully, cañon.
    Also, the old word in German for a valley was “Thal”. Over the centuries, German has lost the “th” combination, with the “th” being replaced by “D”, “T”, or “V”. The word “thorn” became “Dorn”, “thing” became “Ding”, north became “Nord” as in “Nordamerika”, south became “Sud” as in “Sud Afrika”, and “Thal” became “Tal”.
    We have kept our “th” in English, especially on old compound words like “Neanderthal”, which is spelled “Neandertal” in modern German. Also, the old name for a medieval kind of silver coin, was “Joachimsthaler”, and over the centuries this one got pruned down all the way to “dollar”, losing the “th”.
    Of course, I always remember the Romulan officer “Subcommander Tal” from STAR TREK, as in “Tal! Hard aport!” from the Romulan Commander.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    So when it comes to the great chasms and rifts at the bottom of the oceans, these have names like the Puerto Rican Trench (the deepest one in the Atlantic) and the great Marianas Trench (close to Guam and Saipan), the deepest place in the Pacific or any ocean.
    There is also a chasm of a kind (What is the name for it?) that crosses northern Scotland from northeast to southwest. This is the location of the famous lochs of Scotland, including Loch Ness. People have linked up all of those lochs with canals and locks, and these allow medium-sized watercraft to go across from the North Sea to the Irish Sea. This whole waterway is called the Caledonian Canal, from an old word for “Scotland”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    So, we can extend our list of short words for “valley”:
    col, cwm, Tal, dale, dell, dene, glen, rill, rift, glen, Thal, vale, cañon, chasm, combe, coomb, gorge, gulch, gully, Rille.
    To include just a little more Spanish, allow one more letter for the fine word “arroyo”, as in the great Arroyo Seco in Pasadena and La Cañada – Flintridge, California. This is in the immediate vicinity of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of CalTech, and years ago they used to test jet engines and rockets in the Arroyo Seco. It used to be considered to be a safe place to do so, but not anymore!

  • Dale A. Wood

    So, you can see how, historically speaking, it is a “short route” from the Arroyo Seco in La Cañada – Flintridge to the Hadley Rille of Apollo 15: https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/apollo/apollo-program/landing-missions/apollo15-landing-site.cfm , to Jupiter and beyond via Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and New Horizons.

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