Lake name

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One of my favorite places to run to from Swarthmore is a beautiful little lake about three miles away.  I've been running down there for a couple of years now after I discovered its existence when I mentioned to some folks who live in Ridley Park, where the lake is located, that I'm always looking for nice places to run, and they suggested, with some pride, that I should come down and check out their little gem of a lake.  So I tried it out and have become stuck on it.  I have to run down there at least once every week or two, otherwise I feel that something is missing in my life.

So I've been blissfully running to that pretty little lake for a couple of years, but never thought whether it had a particular name.  Yesterday, for some unknown reason (perhaps because the weather was so glorious — 70º, clear blue skies, still some autumn foliage), the thought entered my mind that I should ask some people walking around there, sitting on benches, fishing, and standing on the cute bridge at one end where there is a creek that feeds the lake, what they call that lovely, little body of water.

First I asked a mother and daughter (about ten years old) who were sitting on a bench, "What do you call this lake?"

The mother replied, "We just call it 'the lake'".

The daughter disagreed, "No, Mom, it's East Lake".  She pronounced the words distinctly separately:  East Lake.  They recommended that I walk over to the bank overlooking the southeast corner of the lake and read what was written on a plaque that was erected there.  I did so; it said "Eastlake Park".

I continued around the lake, asking people as I went.  Some people called it "Ridley Lake", some called it "Ridley Park Lake", which is what it's labeled as on Google Maps.  One lady told me that she took some photographs there, and her camera labeled the place as "Eastlake". 

No matter what it's called, that peerless little lake has given me much joy, especially when I jog around it and take in all the countless divine details that present themselves to me, such as the thirty Canadian geese standing on the dam at the end opposite the cute little bridge, contemplating the expanse of water in front of them.  What a thrill it was to watch a row of ten of the geese in the central section enthusiastically wag their tails in unison!  At such a cosmic moment, it didn't matter to me one whit what that precious body of water is called.  It simply IS; it exists.  And that is another reason why I like to run — because, as with meditation (zen < chán < dhyāna), it clears / cures (?) my mind of all ratiocination, leading to the śūnyatā ("emptiness") one strives for in samādhi ("meditative consciousness").  This is The Zen of Running (has there been such a book yet?).  On the other hand, running has also resulted in some of my most illuminating blogs about languge, of which I hope this is one.

The blogging of jogging.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 10:29 pm

    I forgot to mention that, when I was living in New England, many "ponds" there were five, ten, fifteen, twenty or more times larger than the beautiful little "lake" in Ridley Park — e.g., Walden Pond in Concord and Fresh Pond in Cambridge. Back in northeastern Ohio, we would have called the New England ponds "lakes" and the Ridley Park lake would more likely be a "pond".

  2. Laura Morland said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 11:11 pm

    What a lovely story! Beyond my pleasure in reading it, it inspires me to go out running (or at least for a brisk walk).

    I agree that it's intriguing how perspectives on bodies of water differ. Last year I spent 12 days in Israel and the territories with 33 French people. Early on, we drove by the Dead Sea, and I questioned whether it should in fact be called a "sea". Our guide, an academic, insisted that it was indeed "la mer morte".

    A week later we found ourselves in a hostel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. "This is a sea?" I asked. "It can't be a sea if I can see hills on the other side!" That time our guide agreed with me, for in French it's called "le lac de Tibériade."

  3. Elliot McIntire said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 1:00 am

    Just FYI, they are Canada geese, not Canadian. Some may come from Canada, but in the Northwest they nearly all come from Alaska.

  4. Rick said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 2:23 am

  5. Vanya said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 4:11 am

    The Lake/Pond distinction in my home state of New Hampshire is hard to parse. The biggest “pond” in NH appears to be Pine River Pond, at 593 acres, everything over that is clearly a lake but anything smaller seems random.

    We swim in Loon Pond (121 acres) but a sign at the entrance calls it the “Loon Lake Beach Club”, so there is clearly confusion. My town also has Sawyer Lake, which occupies 79 acres, not too far from Shellcamp Pond, which is twice as large. I don’t think depth has anything to do with it either, since Loon Pond is twice as deep as Sawyer Lake.

    It does appear that bodies of water named after people (Sawyer and Manning in my town) are lakes while natural features are associated with ponds, so maybe it was originally a pride thing.

  6. Cecilia Segawa Seigle said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 5:10 am

    Dear Victor,
    What a charming, beautiful, and comforting essay you've given us!
    It reminded me of the famous essay every Freshman has to read in their first English class: Thoreau's Walden. It has been 70 years since I read it, so I cannot remember anything about it. But I know your essay gave me the delightful and calming, contemplative effects Thoreau gave me — plus more liveliness and charm. Your essay is about pleasure of living and meaning of life. Thank you so much!!

  7. gds555 said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 6:06 am

    Here's an illuminating passage from the Wikipedia article "Pond", as edited (though not completely independently verified) for this comment by me:

    The technical distinction between a pond and a lake has not been universally standardized. Limnologists and freshwater biologists have proposed formal definitions for "pond", including "bodies of water where light penetrates to the bottom of the waterbody", "bodies of water shallow enough for rooted water plants to grow throughout", and "bodies of water which lack wave action on the shoreline". Each of these definitions has met with some disapproval or resistance, since the defining characteristics in question tend to be difficult to measure and/or verify. Accordingly, some organizations and researchers have settled on definitions that rely on size alone.

    Even among organizations and researchers that distinguish ponds from lakes purely by size, there is no universally recognized standard. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands sets the upper limit for pond size as 8 hectares (80,000 square meters; 19.8 acres; 861,113 square feet). Researchers for the British charity Pond Conservation (now called Freshwater Habitats Trust) defined a pond to be "a man-made or natural waterbody that is between 1 square meter (0.0001 hectares; 0.0002 acres; 11 square feet) and 20,000 square meters (2.0 hectares; 4.9 acres; 215,278 square feet) in area, which holds water for four months of the year or more". Other European biologists have set the upper size limit at 5 hectares (50,000 square meters; 12.4 acres; 538,196 square feet).

    In practice, a body of water is called a pond or a lake on an individual basis, as conventions change from place to place and over time. In North America, even larger bodies of water have been called ponds: for example, Crystal Lake in Newton, Massachusetts at 33 acres (13.4 hectares; 133,546 square meters; 1,437,480 square feet), Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts at 61 acres (24.7 hectares; 246,858 square meters; 2,657,160 square feet), and Spot Pond mostly in Stoneham, Massachusetts at 340 acres (137.6 hectares; 137,593 square meters; 14,810,400 square feet). On the other hand, there are numerous examples in other U.S. states of bodies of water smaller than 10 acres (4.0 hectares; 40,469 square meters; 435,600 square feet) being called lakes. Marketing considerations can sometimes be the driving factor behind the categorization, as was the case with the above-mentioned Crystal Lake (which had had various "Pond" names prior to the second half of the nineteenth century).

  8. Robert T McQuaid said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 6:25 am

    The body of water separating Europe from America is also called a pond.

  9. F said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 6:48 am

    RTMcQ: no, it's *the* Pond

  10. gds555 said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 6:54 am

    By the way, in fleshing out and adjusting the four-way presentations of pond and lake sizes (i.e., in hectares, square meters, acres, and square feet) for my version of the excerpted Wikipedia passage in my comment above, I played fast and loose with the rules of significant digits. I did that because (1) properly following the rules, and giving the necessary explanation of what I was doing, would be getting into more technicalities than are probably appropriate for a Language Log post; and (2) in the specific case of the passage's last paragraph, I figured there was no point in exactitude of significant digits when the starting measurements of pond size were probably somewhat inexact to begin with, and I didn't feel like delving into obscure government documents to find more precise starting measurements.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 7:07 am

    Before, during, and after writing this little essay, I knew that I should have changed "Canadian geese" to "Canada geese", because I've been "corrected" on that point numerous times in the past. Yes, I know that the official designation of the species is Canada goose (Branta canadensis) — note the form of the Latin modifier — yet somehow for this essay, "Canadian geese" sounded more poetic to me than "Canada geese", just as "Canadian sunset" sounds more evocative than "Canada sunset". I was in a poetic mood when I wrote this piece, so I let it stand as "Canadian geese", and I don't regret it.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 7:23 am

    pond (n.)

    c. 1300 (by mid-13c. in compounds, c. 1200 in surnames, possibly in Old English), "artificially banked body of water," variant of pound "enclosed place" (for livestock, etc.; see pound (n.2)). Applied locally to natural pools and small lakes from late 15c. Jocular use in reference to the Atlantic Ocean dates from 1640s. Pond scum "free-floating freshwater algae" (Spirogyra) is from 1864 (also called frog-spittle and brook-silk; as figurative for "someone extremely repulsive," it is attested from 1984.

    Online Etymology Dictionary

    From Middle English pond, ponde (“pond, pool”), probably from Old English *pond, *pand (attested in placenames), a variant of pund (“enclosure”). Doublet of pound.


    lake (n.1)
    "body of water surrounded by land and filling a depression or basin," early 12c., from Old French lack (12c., Modern French lac) and directly from Latin lacus "pond, pool, lake," also "basin, tank, reservoir" (related to lacuna "hole, pit"), from PIE *laku- "body of water, lake, sea" (source also of Greek lakkos "pit, tank, pond," Old Church Slavonic loky "pool, puddle, cistern," Old Irish loch "lake, pond"). The common notion is "basin."

    There was a Germanic form of the PIE root which yielded Old Norse lögr "sea flood, water," Old English lacu "stream, pool, pond," lagu "sea flood, water, extent of the sea," leccan "to moisten" (see leak (v.)). In Middle English, lake, as a descendant of the Old English word, also could mean "stream; river gully; ditch; marsh; grave; pit of hell," and this might have influenced the form of the borrowed word.

    Online Etymology Dictionary

    From Middle English lake (“lake, watercourse, body of water”), from Old English lacu (“lake, pond, pool, stream, watercourse”), from Proto-West Germanic *laku, from Proto-Germanic *lakō (“stream, pool, water aggregation”), from Proto-Indo-European *leg- (“to leak, drain”).

    Despite their similarity in form and meaning, the word is not related to English lay (“lake”), Latin lacus (“hollow, lake, pond”), Scottish Gaelic loch (“lake”), Ancient Greek λάκκος (lákkos, “waterhole, tank, pond, pit”), all from Proto-Indo-European *lókus (“lake, pool”).


  13. Tim Williams said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 9:23 am

    Near our home we have various bodies of water which might be variously lakes or ponds with no clear rhyme or reason. We also have dew ponds which are temporarily filled hollows in pasture land, filled at least notionally by dew. Other words to consider are mere used mostly in the North of England to refer to lakes and tank used in Sri Lanka at least to refer to artificial lakes used as water reservoirs.

  14. Robert Coren said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    @Laura Morland, if you want to get more confused about sea vs. lake, consider the fact that the German word See can mean either, depending on what (grammatical) gender is has ("lake" is masculine, "sea" is feminine).

  15. Ted McClure said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 11:14 am

    In Arizona one sees "tank" referring to small reservoirs that were originally artificial or that somehow were thought to be artificial. Sometimes the water itself is long gone and it's just a place name now.

  16. cameron said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 11:15 am

    The wide and shallow stretch of the Hudson River between Tarrytown and Nyack is called the Tappan Zee. This was historically sometimes Anglicised to Tappan Sea, but rarely. The Tappan Zee Bridge traversed this part of the river. That bridge was torn down and its replacement is officially called the Mario Cuomo Bridge, but I think people around there mostly continue to call it the Tappan Zee Bridge. It is, after all, the bridge over the Tappan Zee.

  17. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 10:16 pm

    The upstate New York village I grew up in, in the foothills of the northern Catskills, had two ponds. One was quite small, the other larger. Both were millponds.

    In the county, lake and pond seem to be used randomly. The one consistent use of pond was for farm ponds, which were generally completely or partially artificial.

  18. Dara Connolly said,

    November 11, 2020 @ 4:34 am

    The first time I came across the American usage of "pond" to refer to a lake was the film "On Golden Pond" with Henry Fonda. My previous experience (growing up in Ireland) of the word pond was restricted to very small ornamental features (garden ponds).

    I was similarly struck by a line in a novel by John Irving: "she threw rocks at you?" when the "rocks" in question were pebbles from a driveway. For me, the size cutoff above which a stone could reasonably be called a rock is about the size of my fist.

  19. mollymooly said,

    November 11, 2020 @ 8:50 am

    Cork city in Ireland has two well-known park lakes: The Lough (officially "Cork Lough") has a surface area of 16 statute acres; the Atlantic Pond about 5 acres.

    The "Banks of the Lee Walkway" was renamed "Slí Cumann na mBan" shortly after opening in 2006, but most of its English-language signage uses the older name; perhaps the newer name applies only in Irish, or perhaps they just never bothered updating the signs.

  20. Dara Connolly said,

    November 11, 2020 @ 10:38 am

    If I'm reading the quoted material in Victor Mair's comment correctly, there is complete disagreement between Etymonline and wiktionary regarding the origin of the word "lake". One says that it's from French lac <- Latin lacus; the other that these words are unrelated, "despite their similarity in form and meaning".

    Which is correct?

  21. SusanC said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 5:42 pm

    Not very far from the city from where I live, there was a very controversial planning application. Yes, one of those. I will spare you the details, but the eventual outcome was the proposed development didn’t get the go-ahead, and the adjacent green space with two lakes is now legally a village green, protecting it from development.

    The larger of the two lakes certainly had a name before the planning dispute. It is not entirely clear if the smaller lake previously had a name, or was just an unamed topographic feature. But after an extensive period for being argued about by lawyers, being the subject of numerous article in the local press, being the subject of petitions, being drawn on maps supporting planning applications etc, the feature seems to have acquired a name.

  22. Greg Price said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 8:59 pm

    @Dara Connolly Indeed. It looks like that etymology on Wiktionary is uncited — so I wouldn't take it too seriously when other sources disagree.

    Here's what the OED says — it agrees with Etymonline, pointing to French lac and Latin lacus:
    "Early Middle English lac , < Old French lac, < Latin lacus basin, tub, tank, lake, pond; the popular form of the word in Old French was lai . The present English form lake (recorded from the 14th cent.) may be due to confusion with lake n.3, or perhaps rather to independent adoption of Latin lacus."

    And "lake n.3" is glossed: "A small stream of running water; also, a channel for water. Obsolete exc. dialect." So that seems to correspond to the etymology that the Wiktionary entry takes as the primary one for modern "lake".

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