When large rivers, such as the Nile, fan out into multiple branches near the end of their course and create a large triangle of fertile land, those triangular tracts of land are called deltas. That label, however, was not coined specifically for geography. Instead, the term delta was first applied to rivers as something of a simile or metaphor to describe how the end of certain rivers looked. Simply put, the use of the word “delta” to describe the end of rivers was quite literal, as it was originally intended to make the reader or listener envision the triangular Greek letter of the same name, the Delta (Δ). Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), the ancient Greek father of history, is thought to have been the first writer to describe the shape of the Nile’s fanned out mouth as having a triangular, Delta shape. Yet, although he was the first to write it down, he apparently borrowed the comparison from other Greeks. Herodotus claimed that the practice of likening the Nile’s mouth to a Delta was widespread with his contacts among the Ionian Greeks. The name stuck, and thousands of years later, it remains a geographical term to describe the triangular mouths of rivers in the modern day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Nile River, photographed by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.