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Origins And Etymologies Of U.S. State Names

Flower TucciKnowing your state bird, flower or bug might be a good ice breaker while waiting in line at the DMV, but how many people actually know the origin of their state's name? The etymologies of some U.S. state names are more obvious than others, derived from the Spanish or French tongue. Though, more than half of the U.S. state names come from Native American tribal languages, with several still a mystery to scholars and historians.

One such disputed origin is the state of Alabama, which comes from the Choctaw language. It first showed up on the page from Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in the 16th century, referring to the area and its people. Alabama was long thought to actually mean "Here We Rest"; a nice fit for southern style. Though, the Choctaw meaning is widely accepted as a word derived from "Alba", which means plants or weeds and "amo", meaning to cut, trim or gather. Alabama's origin is now known as 'clearers of the thicket' or 'herb gathers.'

The Eskimo Aleut language had a more definitive meaning for the state, or as they knew it, territory of Alaska. There are only some 300 people who can still speak the Aleut language, but they'd tell you the literal translation of Alaska is, "the object towards which the action of the sea is directed". It has more commonly been referred to as the translation for "mainland." The actual Aleut word is "alaxsxaq", and it is the Russian pronunciation that survived into the English language once the U.S. purchased the territory from the Russian Empire.

The state name of Arizona caused a grand canyon of confusion. It has been noted as originating from an Aztec word for "bearing silver" or possibly the more native origin from the O'odham language meaning "having a little spring" or "place of the small spring". Historians have argued, convincingly, that the Arizona territory was densely inhabitant by both the Basque people from Spain and France and 5 varieties of Oak trees. In that respect, Arizona's name comes from the Basque words, "artiz", meaning oak tree, and "ona", meaning good; thus Arizona's origin being "place of the good oak tree." While historians continue to debate both sides, maybe Arizonians could mash it up with 'a little spring by a silver mine with good Oak trees.'

Arkansas and Kansas share a name origin; just look at the word itself. Kansas comes from a French pronunciation of the Quapaw or Kaw tribe of Native Americans, which has been translated as "people of the wind." The origin of Arkansas is from the Miami-Illinois language, which borrows Kansas or Kaw in their own pronunciation of "akaansa".

The origin of the name for California is just as much a mystery as some of its population. In all do respect, they are poetic and mythic mysteries. The quick answer to California's named origin comes from Las Californias; referencing the southern U.S. West coast, with Baja California in Mexico. Though what the word California actually means may be more true to a Hollywood work of fiction. The "Island of California" is a fictional island from a 16th century novel, Las Sergas de Esplandin (The Adventures of Esplandin) by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, which inspired Spanish explorers like Hernan Cortes, who mistook discovering the California peninsula for the mythic island. California is also noted as originating from Spanish or Latin, with an etymology of "hot as an oven, or furnace, " where "cali" is hot and "fornia" is furnace. Don't bake your brain on it too long though.

Colorado's name origin is a little more set in stone, or rather the red rocks the state is famous for. The name comes from early Spanish explorers, such as Juan de Onate Salazar (1552 - 1626), who may have called the state's river, "reddish colored" or "color red", for the rocks' hue. It may have originally referred to the Colorado River, but today can also refer to Colorado's Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Since rivers were vital transportation in the days of early explorers, it's no surprise that Connecticut is also named for its river. The state's name comes from a French perversion of the Eastern Algonquian word, "Quinetucket", meaning "at the long tidal river", and also from the Ojibwe (sometimes called the Chippewa) language meaning "long river." A rightful title, as the Connecticut River is the largest in New England at 407 miles.

Delaware is named after a river too, which is part of a naming monopoly the Baron De La Warr (1577 - 1618) scooped up. The Delaware Bay, river, American Indian tribe (aka the Lenape) and state all originated from the Baron's surname.

The French and Spanish explorers had a lot of high hopes in the new world, such as the Island of California being exclusively populated by Amazonian women. There is also Juan Ponce de Len (1460 - 1521), who, as legend has it, thought he'd find eternal youth in Florida; and centuries later the retirement community is still searching. When Ponce de Len landed on the peninsula in 1513 he mistook for an island, it was early April around the Easter season and so he named it honor of La Pascua Florida, which translates in Spanish as "Flowery festival, " where "Pascua" can be used for a number of holidays. "Florida" may have also referenced the "flowery" presence along the coasts of the peninsula.

While Spanish Florida was being explored or exploited, depending on your historical point of view, The British were feuding with Spain over some prime real-estate off the coast; today called Georgia. The name origin gives away who won the feud, as Georgia is the feminine Latin form of George, as in King George II., who the area was named for around 1730.

The state of Hawaii presents no initial mystery in its name origin, being named for the Hawaiian Islands, but the islands and word Hawaii are cloaked in mystique. "Hawaii" comes from a hero's name, Hawai'iloa, in an ancient legend about how the islands were settled. Hawaii's other islands are named for the sons of Hawai'iloa. Hawaii also has a possibly origin in the Maori name, Hawaiki, which was a mythical land from Polynesian culture. The word Hawaii itself may come from the islander's words, "Hawa" meaning "homeland" and "ii", meaning small, which together can mean "small or new homeland."

Another state whose name origin is of mythic proportions is Idaho, which was apparently a made up word falsely presented under Native context. A politician later admitted to making up the word, as well as it's meaning which was "Gem of the Mountains." Though, Idaho has also been said to originate from a Plains Apache word for "enemy", which the Apache considered the Comanche tribe of the territory. Perhaps this colorful politician was trying to create a better marketing buzz, covering up the possible real Apache meaning as the territory developed.

If you've ever talked with someone from Illinois, then you'll realize they've swayed from territorial origins as far as names go. The word Illinois is another French perversion of a Native American language; the Ojibwe word "Iliniwek" means "those who speak in the ordinary way, " and Illinois is anything but ordinary.

On that note of plain speak; the state of Indiana simply took its name from the term, "land of the Indians." This was due to the populous Native American tribes living north of the Ohio River in the late 18th century. Early white settlers used what is present day Kentucky as hunting grounds, and referred to the land north of the Ohio as "Indiana", or "land of the Indians."

Some name origins just can't be traced to their essential meaning, and this is somewhat of the case for the state of Iowa. The word itself comes from the Native Siouan tribe of the Iowa, which in their language is "ayuhwa", translated as "asleep, " which some have called "sleepy ones." Just what this is reference to is something most scholars have put to rest.

If it wasn't obvious yet, this has been progressing alphabetically and Kansas was already discussed back at Arkansas, so let's skip ahead to Kentucky. Another state possibly named for its river, the Kentucky River, which was most likely named for the Iroquoian word for "prairie" or "meadow." Though other Native tongues might translate the words as "land of tomorrow", "river of blood" or "river bottom."

Moving on down to Louisiana, we've got another Royal shout out, and if you know anything about the abundant French influence in New Orleans it's apparent to who. No guess? France's King Louie of course and that would be King Louis XIV.

The French may have also had an influence up in the North East, where Maine was supposedly named after a French province by the same name. This name would have been given in honor of the province's owner, Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, but this was refuted by historians. The more likely origin of the state of Maine's name is a nautical reference for "mainland" to distinguish it from the islands off the coast.

Queen Henrietta Maria wasn't at a loss though, as the state of Maryland is named after her. This was back in 1634, as her hubby, King Charles I of England and company staked their claims throughout the colonies.

Just north of Maryland, settlers were also sailing the coastline and taking notice of a big hill with a distinct bluish hue in what is now, Massachusetts. It is from the Great Blue Hill that the state got its name from the Algonquian word meaning "at the great hill." It can also be translated in other Native dialects as "near the great little mountain" or "little big hill."

The state of Michigan takes it's name from the blue of the largest of the Great Lakes in the U.S. Lake Michigan was the originating name and comes from the French pronunciation of the Ojibwe word, "mishigami", which means "large or great water."

As a northern confluent of the Mississippi River, the Minnesota River is another body of water that's name flowed into the territory's name origin. The state of Minnesota takes its name from the River's cloudy complexion, translated from Dakota (the Lakota language of the Sioux family) as "mini" meaning water, and "sota", which means smoky-white", or "like the cloudy sky."

Following suit, the Mississippi River graced the state of Mississippi with its name, which is an Ojibwe word, "misi-ziibi", for "Great River."

Perhaps the Missouri Tribe of the Siouan family was a bit more industrious, as their territory wasn't just named after the Missouri River, but for the canoes that floated upon them. The word, Missouri is translated from the Illinois language as "Dugout canoe."

Sometimes keeping it simple is best and this is how the state of Montana got its name. They don't call it "Big Sky Country" for nothing, and the most prevalent feature of this state is the Rocky Mountains, simply taking the Spanish word for mountain as its name.

Just southeast of the Rockies is the sprawling plains of Nebraska, which is also named for one of the U.S.'s rivers, the Platte River. As the Platte empties out into the Missouri River, it takes its name from the Chiwere Language of the Missouri, Iowa and Otoe tribes. The originating word, "Nebraskier" is Chiwere for "flat water", and a French explorer named the river in his own tongue, "platte", which is French for flat. Though, it was originally known as the Nebraska River, and the name stuck for the state when it entered the Union in 1867.

Heading back up into high elevations, the state of Nevada, while vastly desert, touches the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The word Nevada is Spanish for "covered in snow." Snow covered peaks aren't usually the attraction when most people think "Vegas Baby." Nonetheless, the Sierra Nevada range is a defining feature of the state's western border.

When English fishermen settled what is now New Hampshire, they didn't try to pronounce some Native Algonquian word, like the French often did; the just called it New Hampshire, after their English country across the pond.

The same went for the founding of New Jersey, which was named for the Bailiwick of Jersey; an island in the English Channel.

Geographical, the meaning of the state of New Mexico's name is fairly obvious. The phrase "New Mexico" is a calque, which means it is a word-for-word translation from the Spanish, "Nuevo Mexico." What the word Mexico actual means is yet another mystery, but some say it is named for the Aztec God, Mextli. The Aztecs were more accurately known as the Mexicas, from which the republic of Mexico took its name. The possible word origin for Mexicas may be a Nahuatl word for the Sun, a type of weed that grows in Lake Texcoco, or a Nahuatl phrase, "metztli" which means moon and "xictli", meaning navel, together meaning "navel of the moon."

New York takes its name from the historic walled city of York in North Yorkshire, England and honored the Duke of York. This particular duke ruled from 1633 - 1685, but would later become King James II of England, the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over England, the Scots and Ireland. The state was once known as New Netherland before the British jacked the Dutch, when it became known as the Province of New York.

King James II was son to King Charles I of England, for who the states of North Carolina and South Carolina are named. The King's other son, Charles II, established the colonies there in honor of his father with a Latin version of Charles; Carolina.

North Dakota and South Dakota share a name taken from the Sioux word for "Ally" or "Friend", which was a name for a Sioux tribe, the Dakotas.

Yet another native name was given to the state of Ohio, which is a Seneca (Iroquois tribe), word, "ohiiyo", for "large creek, " or "good river." This refers to the Ohio River and Allegheny River, and the word was sometimes mistranslated by the French to mean, "beautiful river."

Like Indiana, the state of Oklahoma, used a somewhat generic term to establish its location in the plains. The word Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw language, where "okla" means people, tribe or nation and "homa" means red, making Oklahoma the land of "Red People."

Unlike other obvious translations from native tongues, Oregon, like Idaho, is a mysterious word. It may have first appeared in a letter to King George III from the explorer Robert Rogers, who mentioned a river the natives called "Ouragon." This was the name for the Columbia River, and is a French word for Hurricane. Furthermore, Oregon's source may be from a native word for "beautiful water"; Wauregon. Another meaning of Oregon may come from a French mapmaker's mistake about the Wisconsin River, "Quisconsin." Still yet, another possibility arose out of some Chinook Jargon, a pidgin language, where the Cree pronounced the word "ooligan" as "Ourigan", which is little smelt-like fish in the Pacific Northwest valued in trade for its oil. Ultimately, finding the true origin of Oregon's name has been fishy business for historians.

Where west coast states, like California and Oregon dabble in mystery, the east coast is lined with specific honors. Such as the state of Pennsylvania, named in Latin for "Penn's Woods", after the colony's founder, British Royal Naval officer, William Penn. Penn was often under the service of others who stamped their names on the colonies, such as James, Duke of York (New York) and his brother Charles II, who named the Carolinas after their father the king.

Why is Rhode Island called such, when most of the state is on the U.S. mainland? It may come from its association to Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. This island was sometimes called Rhode Island, after the Dutch word for "Red", but it is also mentioned that it resembles the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.

Moving along to the south, and that's not South Carolina or South Dakota which are covered by their northern counterparts; we hit Tennessee in our alphabetical exploration of origins. The word Tennessee comes from the Cherokee word "tanasi", which was the name of a Cherokee village, yet what it means is just as lost as most of the native culture.

As much as the brief independent nation of Texas had feuded with the native tribes and Mexicans, the name comes from a word that means "friend." The Caddoan language of the Hasinai tribe used the word "taysha" to mean friend or ally, which found its way into Spanish as "texa, " a plural of "texas" The Mexicans used "texa" as a name for their northern neighbors of the Caddo Nation.

Utah's state name is often said to be a self reference from the Ute tribe, or also "people of the mountains." Yet another origin has come forth as a Western Apache word for "high." Though, it is the Ute tribe that inhabited Utah, and the Western Apache were mostly in what is now, Arizona.

From trying to climb the mountain of Utah's name origin, there are greener pastures in the state name of Vermont. Known as the Green Mountain State, Vermont's name is rooted in the French words for green, "vert" and mountain "mont." Since the French first settled the territory before the British in the French and Indian War, the name stuck.

The British did get their claim on another Southern state though, and this one was named for the Virgin Queen of England, Elizabeth I. She never married, dubbing her the virgin queen and this title "honored" the naming of Virginia, which in Latin means, "country of the virgin." It's safe to say that this country of virgins extended to its neighbor, West Virginia.

Washington state is the only U.S. state to be named after a U.S. president, that being good ole George of course. The Washington Territory was originally called the Columbia Territory, for the River, but a politician from Kentucky, Richard Stanton, suggested it be named in the first president's honor. It's an interesting symbolism to the founding of the United States as history moved westward; it went from royal honors in the colonies, to mixed up native words in the plains and then with Washington, the founders finally got a piece on the map.

Native presence still exists in the state name for Wisconsin, which comes from the Ojibwe language. The word "Miskwasiniing" may have referred to the Wisconsin River, meaning "red stone place", and was pronounced in French as "Mescousing" and later "Quisconsin." It may have come from the Miami-Illinois language for a word meaning "it lies red, " but may have also been a translation of words that mean, "gathering of waters", or "great rock." Though, the name may have also come from the Ojibwe word "Wiishkoonsing" or "Wazhashkoonsing", which referred to a muskrat lodge.

Wyoming holds its state name from the land of William Penn; that is Pennsylvania, where the Wyoming Valley is. It originates from the Munsee Delaware language, spoken around the Delaware River, for a word that means "mountains and valleys alternating." The state of Wyoming possibly took this eastern name from a poem by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell, Gertrude of Wyoming, but it may have been from settlers of Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley who headed west.

Most of this article was resourced from the entry, "List of U.S. state name etymologies", but I checked all the citied sources for a more accurate and detailed take. As mentioned throughout, there is much dispute and confusion about some state names, so anything you can clarify, please do so in the comment box below.

By Jason Cangialosi - The past meets future for Jason in a nexus fused by creative experiences in music, writing, film and philosophy. A freelance creator and ghostwriter of books, articles and screenplays, he is Managing Editor...  

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