A little stream that runs close to my house soon drops to what used to be the flood plain of the River Severn before it was enclosed and drained. It flows into a drainage ditch called the Pickedmoor Rhine. It can’t be compared with its vastly greater cousin, the continental European Rhine, but if you trace its history back far enough you will find it shares an etymology.
Rhine is an old dialect word known in several spellings around the estuary of the Severn. On the Somerset Levels to the south, it is rhyne. On the other side of the estuary, around Newport in South Wales, it’s reen. No matter the spelling, all are pronounced reen, suggesting a common origin. The Somerset spelling was in the news in early 2014 because of serious flooding on the Levels.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists a group of words closely similar in sense: rean, rain, rone and rune, of which rain has a separate origin from the one meaning water from the sky and rune is likewise a different word from the one for a letter in an ancient alphabet. A rean is a deep furrow in a ploughed field; rain could have the same sense as rean, but could also be a strip of uncultivated land marking a boundary; rone is likewise a boundary strip; and rune is a watercourse. The group appears to be Scandinavian or Germanic variations on an ancient Indo-European word meaning to flow or move, linked to run. The name of the European river Rhine is from the same source, as ultimately is that of the Rhône and some other rivers.
Two Scots words are connected: rone or rhone for the guttering along the eaves of a house and the rare rin, a stream or course of a river. In some parts of the United States, especially West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, a creek or small stream is called a run, which appears for example in the name of the two Civil War battles of Bull Run; this is a variant form of rune.
My local rhine rarely appears in literature; one mention is in a story about pirates told by a 12-year-old born in Gloucestershire, though here he’s talking about south Devon:
The sea had once come right up that valley to just below my uncle’s house; but that was many years before — long before anybody could remember. Just after I went to live there, one of the farmers dug a drain, or “rhine,” in the valley, to clear a boggy patch.
Jim Davis, by John Masefield, 1911.
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