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.