What does ‘riverine’ mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

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: riverine….

In reading the New Yorker, I encountered a word I’d never seen before. It appeared an Aug. 21/17 article headlined, “Is there any point to protesting?” by Nathan Heller. The word was riverine. Here’s how Heller used it:

The boulevards in cities including New York, Washington, London — even L.A., where humans rarely walk— were riverine with marchers.

From context and from the word’s similarity to another well-known word, river, I assumed the new word meant, river-like. Sure enough, when I checked my dictionary, I learned it was an adjective meaning, “relating to or situated on a river or riverbank.” But why didn’t the author just use the more established word, riparian, which means exactly the same thing?

What especially intrigues me is how riparian — surely a more obscure word with more apparent similarity to a peach (ie: ripe) than to a river — should become the more dominant term. My etymology dictionary was able to give me the background on each word, but, sadly, no clue as to why one should outpace the other.

Riparian is Latin, from riparius meaning “of a river bank.” This was taken from riparia, which means “shore.” Other sources are thought to be Greek (ereipia means “ruins,” and eripne means “slope, precipice”), Old Norse (rifa means to “break, to tear apart”), Danish (rift means “breach”), and  Middle High German (rif means “riverbank, seashore.”)

Riverine is Anglo-French from the  Old French riviere meaning “river, riverside, river bank” (12c.), also from the Latin riparia.  Interestingly, my dictionary dates both riverine and riparian to 1849 but offers no speculation as to why two such words were needed.

By the way, I especially like Heller’s figurative language in the way he compares a street full of people to a river.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Oct. 4/17.

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