What does “riparian” mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: riparian.

As a youth, I was a serious canoeist. I had belonged to the Girl Guides (known as the Girl Scouts in the US) and, when I hit the age of 16, advanced to the contingent of Sea Rangers.

Our seagoing vessel? A canoe! We stored it at one of the member’s homes and walked it down to the ocean — 14 blocks away — several times a week where we paddled happily and vigorously. We took a perverse delight in alarming the lifeguard when we practiced “dumping” (tipping) the canoe and climbing back in from the water. But the highlight of my life in Rangers was a 12-day, 80-mile canoe trip around the Bowren Lakes in Northern BC. So challenging! So much fun!

As a result of my experience as a canoeist, I read Ben McGrath’s Dec. 14/15 New Yorker article with more than the usual interest. Headlined, “The Wayfarer: A solitary canoeist meets his fate,” the piece told the story of Dick Conant, a smart by psychologically troubled 63-year old Navy vet who spent as much of his life as possible canoeing US waterways. The piece also introduced me to the word riparian. Here’s how McGrath used it:

He [Dick Conant] had a rust-colored beard, with patches of white, and his face was as red as a boiled lobster shell—a riparian Santa.

I knew I’d seen the adjective many times before but I’d never managed to retain its meaning. Now I know it means, “of or relating to wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams.” This may explain why I never learned the term as a Sea Ranger. We’d generally canoed in the ocean or lakes.

Turns out the word is Latin in origin coming from riparius, meaning “of a river bank,” which, in turn, comes from riparia meaning “shore.” There are also some intriguing links with other languages: Old Norse rifa meaning “to break, to tear apart;” Danish rift meaning “to breach,” and Middle High German rif  meaning “riverbank, seashore.” The English words riven and rift are also related.

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