Dock, Wharf, or Pier? We Know Where You're From Depending On What You Call It

No matter the name, we love these structures for providing easy access to Southern waterways.

Indian River Lagoon in Vero Beach, FL
Photo: Jessica Sample

Dock, wharf, or pier? While there is no end-all-be-all answer to the question of what to call a structure that juts out over the water, you're sure to get different answers depending on who you ask. By definition, all three words are defined similarly: a structure off the shore that is typically used to tie up boats. And while some Southerners use the terms interchangeably, geography often shapes how people refer to them; you'll rarely find a person from Mobile, Alabama, calling anything a "dock," and "wharf" is practically absent from a Virginian's vocabulary. But there's one thing we can all typically agree on: How we refer to the structure is often dependent on its location and primary use. Our editors, who hail from across the South, had some strong opinions on the matter.

“If you’re lucky, you have a dock on a creek at Pawleys Island, South Carolina, and a wharf on the bay in Point Clear, Alabama.” – Sid Evans, Southern Living Editor in Chief 

Many folks use the word "dock" to describe a place to tie up a boat, while using "pier" to describe a transitional structure between water and land. Wharves land somewhere in between the two, serving a variety of uses. While piers and wharves are almost always built using raised pilings to allow water to freely flow underneath, docks often float because they are commonly constructed on bodies of water that can fluctuate dramatically in depth.


Peter Frank Edwards

Used most interchangeably with wharf, piers are often longer and communal. “For me, a pier comes with a connotation of being a public space, where anyone can fish or swing or catch a breeze,” says Home and Features Editor Betsy Cribb, a Charleston, South Carolina, native. For Senior Special Projects Editor Katie Rousso, who is from Memphis, it depends on what you’re looking at. “If it’s the lake, we call it a dock. At the beach, we call public fishing, shopping, and hangout areas a pier,” she says. Virginia-raised Editorial Fellow Mary Alice Russell says for her, it’s always a pier. 

Pawley's Island
UWMadison / Getty Images

The consensus among our editors was that if it’s on a lake (or the Intracoastal Waterway)—it’s a dock. For Brennan Long who grew up going to the lake in North Carolina, this rings true. Alabama native Senior Digital Food Editor Kimberly Holland agrees, with the added justification that it has to do with the structure's primary use: “They’re all different in my mind, but if I have to find the word for myself to explain it, it’s a dock. You dock your boat, so… it’s a dock." 


Robbie Caponetto

Now, if you ask just about any Alabamian who's from near the Mobile Bay, they’ll likely agree with Associate Editor Mary Shannon Wells. “Everyone from Mobile and Fairhope calls it a wharf. I think part of the reason behind this choice is because these wharves are not just wooded structures where you tie up a boat. They’re full outdoor living areas made for entertaining. There’s no party like a wharf party!” 

At the end of the day, whether you’re going down to the wharf, dock, or pier to watch the sunset or jump on a boat—we'll know what you’re talking about, but based on your jargon, we’ll also know where you’re from.

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