levee, dyke, embankment

Embankment station District Circle roundel I'm often told (by Brits) that Americans are prudes when it comes to language. And I can often demonstrate the error or hypocrisy in their claim. Tidbit/titbit is one I've covered here so far. Another one is levee, which an Englishman informed me is used because Americans don’t want to say (AmE) dike/(BrE) dyke for a built-up bank to prevent the overflow of water.

So let me count out my objections to his claim:

1. Levee has been used in North America since the 18th century. (Orig. AmE) dyke has only been (slang (or a hyponym) for 'lesbian' since the 20th century. So, Americans definitely didn't start saying levee to avoid association with lesbians.

2. If you're an American like me, you primarily know levee from Don McLean's song American Pie, where it is a convenient rhyme for Chevy. (This is at the top of the 'Lynne's most hated songs' list. I hope I haven't earwormed you with it. My day is ruined.) I think of it as a Louisiana thing (it is used all the way up the Mississippi River), and that's where it came into English, from French. (That part of the continent came into the US with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.) It may be more common now that people have heard it more in the news because of extreme weather in the Gulf States, but I still think of it as a vaguely regional term, rather than pan-American.

3. I only really knew the word dike from the story of the Little Dutch Boy. Where/when I grew up, I'd've  called it a little dam (because we weren't put off by the homophony with damn either!) But note the spelling. The main American spelling of this thing is dike, whereas the 'lesbian' sense is usually spelled/spelt dyke, which which Merriam-Webster lists as 'chiefly British variant of dike'.  So, in printed form, at least, the 'taboo' sense and the 'built up bank by the river' geographic (or is it architectural?) sense are a bit more linked. Living in the 'gay capital of Britain' near a place called Devil's Dyke, I can tell you that the British are aware and amused by the punning potential. In that sense, though, it tends to be for a natural feature, not an artificially built-up place by a river.

4. It’s not like the British are freely going about saying dike for the meaning 'levee'. They tend to prefer the word embankment for such things. Who are the prudes now?

(The green (more BrE) bits above were added after first posting.)


  1. I'm from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so I've definitely mainly heard "levee". However, when I lived in Fargo, ND, as a child, "the dike" next to the Red River was a popular sledding spot.

  2. I agree that "levee" is somewhat regional, although I'd say the region goes up the mississippi river rather than just the gulf coast states-- the riverside embankments in Illinois and Missouri are "levees" too.

  3. It's strange that "levee" comes from Louisiana French, since the standard French word is digue. And the word is so vague, I wonder if it didn't start out as eau levée or some such. (That's the only feminine word I can think of that would work. My first thought was étang or bassin but they're both masculine.)

  4. Just for the record, dams in the Netherlands are very thick and made of earth, so they don't spring leaks. Either the water rises too high and washes over the top, or the dam collapses under the pressure of the water, more typically the latter. The thumb-in-the-dike story was invented by someone who never saw one.

    Two friends and I loved American Pie so much that we learned the lyrics by playing the LP, lifting the arm off the turntable every few seconds (the equivalent of hitting "pause") and scribbling down what we just heard, moving the arm outwards (the equivalent of hitting "rewind") when we missed something. Occasionally we disagreed and just had to leave the multiple readings in our copy. I don't know why we didn't have the dust jacket — it wasn't my record.

    McLean himself was born in Port Chester, NY (part of the Town of Rye in Westchester County), but the narrator of the song is clearly a Southerner.

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  6. Pardon my typing, I'm on my phone for once. At some point I learned that a levee narrows the channel so the water will run faster in order to keep the river from silting up. I don't know if this is true. A dike would just hold water back and I'd expect it to run parallel to a river along the bank, while a dam goes across the channel to hold the water back into a lake or pond.

  7. For me, Sussex-bred, a dyke tends to be synonymous with a ditch, although I do know the embankment meaning from holidays in Essex as a child. But Embankment is always and forever the Thames Embankment! Levee, however, I only know in that sense of the word from the song and because didn't one break or burst or something during Hurricane Katrina, causing disastrous floods. Otherwise a levee is a formal reception (originally from when royalty received courtiers while they were being dressed in the morning).

  8. The only American usage I seem to hear of the word "embankment" to describe the ground being built up above its natural level is for highways or railways/railroads, although I would understand it as synonymous with levee/dike if given the proper context.

    At least in my part of the US (Texas), "embankment" is also used to describe any man-made slope next to a highway or railway, so one can travel "up" or "down" an embankment even if it's technically the side of a trench.

  9. French person here. For me a "levée" is a slope built along a river as protection against floods. To be honest I've only ever heard it used for the Loire river and its tributaries. It comes from "terre levée" or "raised ground".

    According to the Trésor de la langue française (TLF) the first attested use of "levée" in the meaning "digue" is from 1537. It replaced the previous, regional word "tursie" or "turcie" (from the medieval Latin "turcia", raised ground), also attested in English documents of the time: the first formal levées of the Loire were built under the rule of Henry Plantagenet. After disastrous floods, other levées were built in the 17th and 18th centuries through statute labour and a special tax. I'm not surprised the word would make its way to Louisiana.

  10. I first came across the word "levee" in the lyrics of the song Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmEemOfsxhs

  11. I do go around saying "dyke" very freely (I'm British). (Just saying - I'm not trying to support the original assertion about prudish Americans.)

    For me, an embankment is most often an artificial ridge supporting a railway line or a road, and also, with a capital letter, the structure by part of the Thames.

    American Pie: I have always been puzzled by "But the levee was dry." If it's an embankment, wouldn't that a good and unremarkable thing? Does the meaning get extended to the adjacent river channel?

  12. I remember hearing levee in primary school geography lessons in the UK in the early sixties. We used to listen to a BBC Radio schools programme and one of them involved a visit to New Orleans.

    More recently, I recall a BBC Radio 3 documentary about the Netherlands which mentioned that the story of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, with its idea of the individual saving the many, was more popular in the US than in the Netherlands. The story more popular with the Dutch was about the landowners grouping together to strengthen their dykes and one landowner deciding not to join them. When the floods come, it is he who loses his land.

  13. Is your point 4 based on data? I (BrE, southern, 50s) would not use the word embankment in any context in which I would consider dyke appropriate. I only use it for railway/road engineering or for the structure in London. If I heard someone use it for anything else I would assume it to either be an engineering technical usage or a structure which took the form of a (reinforced or man-made) river bank (like in London).

    The protective earth wall in low lying regions is called a dyke, as is a raised path in a wet/muddy/marshy area. In my usage, dyke has no implication that there is a river alongside (many roads in the Fens, for example, are protected by dykes beside the road to protect against general flooding rather than a specific river).

    A dam is something different again: it must be across a river (not alongside).

    I suppose a road built on top of an earth wall could be either an embankment or a dyke depending on whether the emphasis is on the engineering, or the social usage.

  14. Nottingham also has an Embankment - Victoria Embankment is on the north side of the Trent, near to The Meadows (not as pleasant as it sounds). But it is likely that they were meadows in the past, forming part of the Trent flood plain south of the centre of Nottingham, and therefore in need of some structural work to prevent flooding of homes.
    I could be wrong, but I feel we tend to use 'dyke' for small-scale earth ridges & ditches out in the countryside while an embankment is a more serious piece of civil engineering for train lines, urban riversides and main roads.

  15. I don't think I've ever used the word levee outside of singing along to "American Pie". I've used the word dike plenty, though. Growing up I used to accompany a friend to a small island connected to Cape Cod and to get to her house we had to drive across the dike. My sister used to live near a river in Pennsylvania that flooded somewhat regularly, and when I visited we would go for walks along the dike. In both of these cases I never called the structures anything else, nor do I remember hearing other people call them anything else.

    Of course I do realize the similarity to "dyke", but that never prevented me from using the word.

  16. The OED's first quotation for levee is from 1770, where it is glossed 'a raised bank', so I'd guess that it's short for rive levée.

  17. Try listening to When the Levee Breaks, might help.

    In Tokyo Cowboy, a Japanese man obsessed with Americana, winds up in Canada. The word dyke is used, and looking it up in a dictionary does not help his understanding of the alternate meaning.

  18. California also has levees protecting the San Joaquin Valley from the Sacramento river, so it's not just a southern term.

  19. "A dam is something different again: it must be across a river (not alongside)."
    Though in north Suffolk 'The Dam' is a road (specifically from Beccles to Gillingham*)through a marshy area.

    btw the lesbian versus structural dykes for some reason made me think how Dr Johnson's 'ludicrous saying' “It made Gay rich and Rich gay” sounds sooo much racier now-a-days.

    * /g/ rather than /dʒ/, which is in Kent!

  20. I grew up in St Louis, so I'm familiar with "levee" meaning what I'd now call an embankment -- a large built-up riverbank.

    But mainly I've come here because I'm irresistibly reminded of this outtake.


  21. My family is originally from the valley of the Red River of the North (north of Fargo, ND), and the structure is definitely a "dike" there. Besides Fargo-Moorhead, many of the small towns have their own dikes, because the Red floods regularly.

    The area is on the bed of ancestral Lake Agassiz, which was a glacial lake that was once larger than all the Great Lakes combined, and the result is that it is as flat as a table. When floods hit, the river can go from 30m wide to 10km wide in some places. The dikes there are permanent structures with gaps for roads that are filled in when floods hit.

  22. Just to note--I have gone back and clarified a few things I meant (in green). Thanks for all the comments!

  23. Perhaps because I'm also from Nottingham, I'm completely in agreement with Nick Rowe.

    For me an embankment is either the sort of riverbank reinforcement that Nottingham shares with London, or it's the raised dry causeway for a railway.

    Again for me, dyke is a little-used word because it refers to something that's not part of my everyday experience — a small ditch filled with water. Yes, I know about Offa's Dyke (a long defendable boundary earthwork, originally a political boundary between part of what became England and part of what became Wales). But to me that's no more a dyke than Watling Street (an old Roman road) is a street.

    Like John Wells, I heard the word levee originally in Waiting for the Robert E Lee, but I had no idea what a levee was, what the Robert E Lee, or indeed who Robert E Lee was. Then I heard Kansa Joe McCoy singing — over Memphis Minnie's amazing guitar — of When The Levee Breaks. (Yes, I know some famous rock group covered it, but I neither remember nor care who they were.) I must have read Paul Oliver's explanation in Blues fell This Morning but it described something too alien to stick in the memory — certainly not something I could equate with an embankment.

  24. I first came across the word "levee" in the lyrics of the song Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.

    I can't think of the song "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" without also thinking of this classic Charles Addams cartoon.

  25. As Cathy said, levee is quite commonly used in California's central valley. My family moved from Los Angeles to Sacramento when I was 8, so I don't know that it's used in southern California, where there is little water except during the rainy season. Most of Los Angeles' natural rivers and streams have been put into concrete channels. We had one behind our house that we called "the wash".

    I never heard the word "dike" except in the Dutch boy story and when used for wire cutters (short for "diagonal cutters").

  26. I have to admit that I only learnt the lesbian meaning of the weird "dyke" relatively recently (I.e in the past 20 years or so), and it is never the first meaning that comes to mind. My generation tends to say Lezzie or Lizzie rather than dyke....

  27. I have to admit that I only learnt the lesbian meaning of the weird "dyke" relatively recently (I.e in the past 20 years or so), and it is never the first meaning that comes to mind. My generation tends to say Lezzie or Lizzie rather than dyke....

  28. English/American here now living in Scotland: in Scots English a dyke is a wall, usually stone -- "drystane dyke" = a stone wall built without mortar. On the other hand Danes Dyke on the Yorkshire coast is a ditch. Where is the dyke=wall/dyke=ditch boundary?

  29. I'm English. I agree with those who say that levée is an exotic from the world of Cajuns. These are what these word are to me.

    With the exception of the London Embankment, an 'embankment' is normally a built up bank that a railways runs along.
    A 'ditch' is a drainage channel dug round the side of a field, often accompanied by a hedge. It may sometimes include a channelled natural watercourse, but does not have to.
    A 'dyke' is a much more substantial ditch, usually containing a channelled watercourse of some sort. Normally it has something to do with land drainage on a more substantial scale. 'Dykes' are more common in eastern England particularly the Fens. The use of a homonym to mean a lesbian is a recent neologism. I've no idea what its derivation is but I assume it has no connection with the general meaning of its homonym.
    In the low lying parts of the South West of England, the word 'rhyne' (pronounced reen) is used in stead.
    A 'sough' (pronounced suff) is an underground drainage channel bored to take water out of a mine.
    A 'leet' is an artificial watercourse, more usually constructed to move water from one place to another where it is needed as water, rather than to do with land drainage.
    A 'canal' is an artificial watercourse, usually for navigation.

    Such is how I understand these words.

  30. Sorry, I've left one out. A 'dam' is a bank built across a stream so as to construct an artificial lake such as a reservoir or a millpond.

  31. bunchberry
    And of course in the Twa Corbies "In behint yon auld fail dyke"

  32. I first heard of levees in geography lessons at school, specifically about the Mississippi. In the part of England where I live, a dike is a drainage ditch! An embankment could be supporting a railway or road, part of a fortification or a flood defence.

  33. Here's a line belted out by Robin Williams's character in Good Morning, Vietnam:

    "The Mississippi River broke through a protective dike today...What is a protective dike? Is that a large woman standing by the river saying 'Don't go near there!' 'But Betty...' 'Don't go near there! Get away from the river! Stay away!' I know, you can't say dyke, you can't even say lesbian. It's 'women in comfortable shoes'. Thank you very much."

    Speaking of levees, I recommend Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke about Hurricane Katrina.

  34. It occurred to me yesterday that I actually have a picture of a New Orleans levee that I took last September when my wife, college-bound daughter, and I were in the city to tour Tulane University. (That's New Orleans in the background.)

  35. Here in Dayton, Ohio, where we still go on about the 1913 flood, we call our built-up earthen riverbanks "levees." And speaking of gay matters, in Dayton "The Levee" refers to a specific levee that once served as a gay cruising area.

  36. Although the earliest citation in the OED for dike | dyke, n.3 'a lesbian' is from 1942, the related bull-dike | bull-diker | bull-dyker is cited from 1926.

    Long before the term dyke was commonly heard in Britain, I knew of bull dyker, or rather it's abbreviation, from a reissue of Lucille Bogan's 1930 recording BD Women's Blues.

  37. PS to the above

    Both dyke and bull-dyker seem to have been confined originally to 'butch' masculine-looking lesbians.

  38. The OED entry for levee gives a second meaning of 'landing stage'. This makes much better sense as a place where you might wait for the Robert E Lee.

  39. Berm. What about berm? I don't think I knew that word before I moved from England to the US. It's often used for the raised earthwork or rampart that you might see beside a freeway, for example. I don't know whether they have any real purpose or exist because the people building the road had to put the earth they moved somewhere, so why not leave it close by?

    Maybe that's why it's not called an embankment, because it's not serving any geostructural embanking purpose. It's just sitting there, berm-like.

  40. I first encountered levee in one of the Hornblower novels, referring to a royal ceremony.
    Is this a suitable place to mention groynes, which I have only encountered in East Sussex? Traditionally wooden, but often reinforced concrete these days.
    Brighton certainly has them.

    Was thinking I should mention that Embankment station was only renamed that recently, but discovered that all of a sudden it has carried that name for 40 years since the Fleet Line (now Jubilee) made changes in the area.

  41. I think I've mostly seen "berm" used to refer to sound abatement structures next to high-traffic, limited-access, divided roads (the other common option being a noise fence). Berms are also used in a military context as a high-caliber direct-fire weapons defense, either to make a firing position for armored vehicles or as a defense against artillery (including tank guns) and military vehicles.

    A search on "flood berm" brings up lots of pages, though.

  42. David:
    Concerning "levee" meaning landing stage, I think there is a possibility of error here. This steamboat diagram: http://www.cincinnativiews.net/images-3/Parts%20of%20a%20steamboat.jpg indicates that the gangplank at the front of the boat was called a stage. Steamboats frequently docked nose first to the shore so that their paddles would stay in the deeper water. So the stage would be dropped to form a bridge to the shore. In addition, Mark Twain says that many steamboats would stop anywhere along the river to pick up passengers and cargo (Life on the Mississippi, IIRC), so presumably some steamboat landings were on levees, which could extend continuously for many miles.
    BTW, "Waiting on the Robert E Lee" refers to "Alabamy", and the Mississippi River does not touch Alabama. Presumably the river is the Tennessee. One of the song's authors was from St Louis, and he would have known that. (The other was from Russia.:))
    So more steamboat and river esoterica...

  43. How does one pronounce the royal reception levee?

  44. I live in the Fens and as a child I was always confused by the idea of "The little Dutch boy" keeping his finger in the dyke. To me a dyke is any kind of small ditch- the larger ones are drains. I always wondered why the boy sticking his finger in a ditch would help anything.

  45. Kirk Poore

    I think the only confusion results from my use of the term landing stage. What the OED actually says is

    2. A landing-place, pier, quay.

    1842 H. Caswall City of Mormons 3 The landing-place (or levée, as it is denominated).

    In my dialect that's a landing stage.

  46. Anonymous

    How does one pronounce the royal reception levee?

    The evidence is mixed

    1. OED
    • The influential 1791 dictionary by John 'Elocution' Walker said that the stress was on the second syllable.
    • However, one of the early spellings was levy.
    • And when used in verse, the scansion shows that it must have been stressed on the first syllable.
    • At 'court' (presumably the British Royal Court) the first-syllable stress was the official pronunciation.
    • The livvEE and levvEE pronunciations were apparently preferred in the US at the time of publication of the 1902 edition.

    2. John Wells's 1990 Longman Pronunciation Dictionary
    • John recognises only first-syllable stress, with two variants:
    ........1 rhyming with Chevy, heavy...
    ........2 ending in an EIGH sound — i.e. an anglicised approximation to the French pronunciation of levee

  47. Like Mrs Redboots, I only became aware of the slang meaning of "dyke" comparatively recently.
    I came across the word "levee" when reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as a child, and thought of it as having the stress on the second syllable until I heard it in a school geography lesson.

  48. In my part of the agricultural but arid high plains of Colorado, a ditch carries water to irrigate crops. We don't drain water as there is none to spare.

  49. "Levee" was also used in the early US republic to refer to an adaptation of the royal concept. Martha Washington held them, Thomas Jefferson tried to discontinue them, and then Dolley Madison held them.


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)