Let Inga Tell You: Dells and dales and vales


When Olof and I lived in Sweden and had the opportunity to take a trip above the Arctic Circle, we were not surprised to learn that the Sami (formerly known as Lapplanders) had some 1,000 words related to reindeer. (The word tundra, by the way, is Sami).

The Sami traditionally lived by following the reindeer herds but now lead a more settled existence with reindeer farming, hunting, fishing and craft-making. Having pondered reindeer at a Sami farm, I confess I was at a loss to imagine 1,000 different descriptors of them. Years ago, my friend Linda Morefield and I, co-chairing the Pinewood Derby for our Cub Scout troop, decided in true mom fashion that “everybody is a winner,” and set out one evening to create 60 different awards. There’s really only so much you can say about a five-inch block of pine whittled into a car shape, and the kids quickly figured out that “The Batmobile Award” was the only one with any real cachet. So 1,000 words for reindeer impresses me greatly.

I’m guessing the Sami didn’t start out with more than 10, but those winters are really long, cold, and dark, and probably by the end of each winter, they had acquired five more. It was probably what the Sami moms did to keep from strangling the kids who were racing around the tent and driving her nuts. “OK, kids. Here’s an idea. Let’s sit quietly and think of new names for reindeer!” It’s what I would have done.

I got to thinking recently, what do Americans have a lot of terms for? OK, we maybe don’t have 1,000 different terms for it, but I’ve noted for some time that English seems to have an inordinate number of words for topographical depressions, i.e. valleys. This first came to my attention when my parents moved to suburban New Jersey when I was in college, to a secluded home that the Realtor described as featuring a “bosky dell.” It was seriously clever marketing because my mother, who liked the house anyway, fell absolutely in love with the idea of living in a bosky dell, even though none of us quite knew what it meant. The bosky part seemed pretty clear from the Spanish “bosque” or forest (and the lot was indeed nicely wooded). But what the hell was a dell?

One immediately thinks of the children’s song “The Farmer in the Dell,” but that doesn’t make much sense either. As it turns out, the song came over from Europe and one theory is that the “dell” is a corruption of the Dutch “deel,” which can mean a workspace in a farmer’s barn.

As it turns out, a dell in English is a small valley, usually among trees. So, OK, that little area behind the house could, if you were a realtor in a slow housing market, qualify as a dell. (We suspected she was an English major which, like my major in psychology, had left her uniquely qualified for a lifetime of low-paying jobs.)

But over the years, I would wonder: Why wasn’t it a bosky glade? Or a bosky glen? A bosky ravine? Or even a bosky vale or dale? (I’ve never understood the difference between the two of them even though they come up on crossword puzzles a LOT.) So I have taken it upon myself to educate both you and myself on all those topographic holes our landscape seems so replete with.

Vale: a valley (used in place names or as a poetic term).

Dale: a valley, especially a broad one.

Dell: a small valley, usually among trees.

Glen: a narrow valley.

Glade: an open space in a forest (no valley required).

Basin: a large or small depression in the surface of the land or in the ocean floor.

Hollow: a small valley or basin.

Trough: any long depression or hollow.

Ravine: a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides.

Gorge: a narrow valley between hills or mountains, typically with steep rocky walls and a stream running through it.

Canyon: a deep gorge, typically with a river flowing through it.

Coulee: a deep ravine.

Gully: a water-worn ravine.

Couloir: a steep, narrow gully on a mountainside.

OK, so pretty wimpy in comparison to the Sami who even have a word for a bull reindeer with a single, whopper-sized testicle (busat). I guess if you’re walking behind them for a few hundred miles on the otherwise scenery-less tundra, you’d have plenty of opportunity to notice. (Inquiring minds want to know: What happened to the other one?)

I’m willing to concede after this research that my parents did legitimately live in a bosky dell. And by the way, there will be a quiz.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at