creek, up a creek

I had no idea that British usage of creek was different from the use of the word in the rest of the English-speaking world until I was translating an Old Norse work (appropriately enough regarding the discovery and exploration of Vinland) and found that my Old Norse dictionary, produced in the U. K., translated the word vágr as “bay, creek.” Unsure what was intended, a bay or a creek, I did some digging and discovered in British dialect the two words were synonyms. (Just to be clear, there is no etymological connection with the Old Norse vágr. Creek is simply a translation.)

The origin of the word creek is unknown, but it appears in English at the end of the thirteenth century. The poem Havelok the Dane, which is found in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108, says in lines 707–09:

Hise ship he greythede wel inow;
He dede it tere an ful wel pike
That it ne doutede sond ne krike.
(His ship he prepared well enough;
He did it [with] tar and full well [with] pitch
so that he feared neither sound nor creek.)

From this early use the word came to mean a shallow inlet or estuary, especially one that offered a harbor and place to unload crew and cargo.

But in the New World, the word creek traveled upriver and came to be used for a small branch of a river or a brook. Philip Vincent’s A True Relation of the Late Battell fought in New England, between the English, and the Salvages: With the present state of things there, written in 1637 has an early use of this new sense of the word:

They have overcome cold and hunger, are dispearsed securely in their Plantations sixty miles along the coast, and within the Land also along some small Creekes and Rivers, and are assured of their peace by killing the Barbarians, better than our English Virginians were by being killed by them.

This sense of a river branch or small stream is not only found in North America, but in Australia and New Zealand as well.

The phrase up a creek, meaning “in a serious predicament,” is an Americanism, but of later vintage. The phrase is originally up shit creek, first recorded, believe it or not, in the Secretary of War’s 1868 annual report to Congress:

Our men put old Lincoln up Shit creek, and we’ll put old Dill up.

The addition of without a paddle is in place by 1930.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, “creek, n.1” and 3rd Edition, “shit, n. and adj.”; Historical Dictionary of American Slang, “creek.”

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