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Ask 2: Why are the bayous in Houston called bayous and not creeks?

Brays Bayou at Hermann Park and the Texas Medical Center.
Brays Bayou at Hermann Park and the Texas Medical Center.

HOUSTONAt KPRC 2, we’re dedicated to keeping Houstonians informed. As part of our new Ask 2 series, the newsroom will answer your questions about all things Houston.

The question: Why are the bayous in Houston called bayous and not creeks?

The answer: To answer this question, let’s first consider the formal definition of each word. According to Merriam-Webster:

  • Bayou: 1.) A creek, secondary watercourse, or minor river that is tributary to another body of water. 2.) Any of various usually marshy or sluggish bodies of water.
  • Creek: A natural stream of water normally smaller than and often tributary to a river.

By definition, they sound pretty similar. In Houston, we use them interchangeably. Think of Buffalo Bayou, Brays Bayou and Greens Bayou. Now consider Clear Creek, Cypress Creek and Spring Creek. Are they functionally the same? Yes, even though some are called “bayous” and some are called “creeks.”

But make no mistake -- the two terms are not entirely interchangeable. Think of it this way: Not all creeks are bayous and not all bayous are creeks.

For example, when people think of a bayou, the stereotypical Louisiana swamp often comes to mind. But a swamp is not a creek.

Conversely, think of a creek flowing down a mountainside in the Colorado Rockies. Is that also considered a bayou? Definitely not.

Bayous are generally more stagnant and marshy than creeks. Bayous can be broad or narrow, whereas creeks are always relatively narrow channels. And bayous are exclusively southern -- the term “bayou” is confined to the region from Mississippi to southeast Texas. “Creek”, on the other hand, is a common term everywhere.

The waterways around Houston fit the definitions of creeks and bayous, which is why the terms are used interchangeably here. During dry spells, the channels around Houston can run very low and slow, more like a classic bayou. But when it rains, the bayous fill up quickly and start acting more like a classic creek (or raging river, depending on the size of the rain event).

And, of course, we’re in the deep south, so we’re definitely in bayou country.

Do you have a burning H-Town-related question? Send it our way, and we will try to hunt down an answer.

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