Spanglish Lexicon of Aquatic Terms

Much of the Spanish-language vocabulary used by the explorers and colonists in the Southwest included words that do not have good English-language equivalents. Imprecise translation of Spanish-period documents has led to misunderstandings of the nature of our pre-European natural history, and even the history of Spanish exploration and colonization. Consequently this web site will adopt and promote the usage of the more-accurate Spanish terms when appropriate.

The English language is a product of Northern Europe where there are wet summers and an old, stable, mature terrain. Spanish is a product of the Mediterranean and Northern Africa, which, like California, is summer dry, and has a tectonically active, young, immature terrain. It is not surprising that the Spanish vocabulary for aquatic features is better attuned to many features of California and the desert Southwest than is the English vocabulary.

Some Spanish words have attained limited acceptance with English speakers. Arroyo is probably the best example of this. Playa, at least in the specific meaning of dry lake, is gaining popularity, especially in the Burning Man community. Cienega occurs in some American place names, but the meaning is seldom understood.


Arroyo is a Spanish word with relatively good acceptance in English, which, unlike English word choices, captures the distinctive circumstances of creeks in the Mediterranean-climate zones of California and the deserts of the Southwest. In these zones, rainfall is unevenly distributed throughout the seasons. In the Mediterranean zones of California, almost no rain falls in summer; in the deserts, a little rain may fall in the winter, rapidly soaking into the porous soils, but torrential downpours may occur in summer. Consequently, in either case, many creeks typically go dry during times of the year.

An arroyo may be a perennial creek, but an intermittent creek may be an arroyo without further modifiers. An ephemeral creek, or even an intermittent one, may be termed an arroyo seco (dry creek), but there is typically a gully or ravine indicating that, in the right circumstances, there have been major flows with erosive power. A tiny stream course with minimal vertical relief may be an arroyito in Spanish, but this term has made less penetration into the usage of English speakers, who might refer to it as a swale.


As currently defined in Wikipedia:
A cienega or cienaga (in modern Spanish ciƩnaga) is a Spanish Colonial term for a spring, which is in use in English in the southwestern United States. A cienega usually is a wet, marshy area at the foot of a mountain, in a canyon, or on the edge of a grassland where groundwater bubbles to the surface. Often, a cienega does not drain into a stream, but evaporates, forming a small playa.

Cienega is typically translated as marsh, but this loses much specificity of meaning. They are found in the Mediterranean-climate zones of California and in the desert Southwest, where rainfall is highly episodic, and particularly in closed basins where stream channels lead to salt lakes or dry lakes. In these regions, rather than running all the way to the sea, creeks are likely to seep into alluvial fans as they emerge from the mountains. This water may resurface in the bottoms of canyons or other lowlands where the water table intersects the surface, but frequently there are not strong flows. A cienega is often a complex of individual springs, seeps, puddles, and wetlands.

Under these circumstances, the waters may remain fresh enough to sustain typical marsh vegetation such as tules and cattails, but if the water is really stagnant, evaporation concentrates salts, which may support salt marsh plants such as salt grass and pickle weed, or alkaline-tolerant plants such as yerba mansa. If salts rise even higher, the pools may support no plants at all, making certain cienegas bear little resemblance to the typical vision of a marsh.

To be continued... Closer