Cripple is an anglicized version of the Colonial Dutch kreupelbosch, which means “thicket” or “underbrush.” From its earliest use in America, however, cripple has been associated not only with thickety areas but also with wetlands. Describing the vernacular speech of the residents of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, John McPhee writes in The Pine Barrens that “a low, wet area where Atlantic white cedars grow is called a cripple. If no cedars grow there, the wet area is called a spong, which is pronounced to rhyme with ‘sung.’ Some people define spongs and cripples a little differently, saying that water always flows in a cripple but there is water in a spong only after a rain. Others say that any lowland area where highbush blueberries grow is a spong.” (Note that the American use of spong may trace to the nineteenth-century East Anglian dialect, in which a spong was a long, narrow strip of land.) Many eastern place-names derive from cripple, including Big Cripple Swamp, in Delaware; Cripple Brush Creek, in Vermont; and Kripplebush, New York. There are also dozens of Cripple Creeks found across the country—from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Denali, Alaska. A few of these creek names arise from the English sense of cripple; for example, a surveyor once cut his foot with an axe at an Oregon stream, which has since been called Cripple Creek. But the majority of Cripple Creeks are entirely free of links to either accidents or thickets. Folklorists speculate that as the original Dutch meaning faded, people continued using cripple as a name for creeks because of the pleasingly alliterative and faintly poignant sound the two words create together.

Emily Hiestand