A State By Any Other Name
Whether you’re a lifelong Louisianan or a dyed-in-the-wool Delawarean, you’ve probably wondered how your home state came by its distinctive name. Wonder no more! Here's the untold story behind the name of every state in America, from Alabama to Wyoming.
Alabama: Looking after the land
The Heart of Dixie borrowed its handle from the Alabama River, but the river itself was named after its earliest residents, the Native American Alabama tribe. Some believe that "Alabama" derives from the Choctaw words “alba" ("plants" or "weeds") and “amo” ("to cut" or "to gather"), which translate to “thicket clearers” or "vegetation gatherers"—a fitting label for people whose lives revolved around agriculture.
Alaska: From Russia with love
Arizona: A tale of two origins
Depending on which historian you ask, the name Arizona either comes from the Basque phrase for “place of oaks” or the Papago phrase for “place of the young spring.” Either way, Native American influences are strong in the state, which of all the states has the highest percentage of land reserved for Native Americans.
Arkansas: Downstream neighbors
Now a popular whitewater rafting destination, the Arkansas River is the historical home of the Quapaw people. The name of the river (and state) derives from a French transliteration of "akansa," the Algonquian name for the Quapaw.
California: Island illusion
In 1510, Spanish writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo published "Las sergas de Esplandián" ("The Exploits of Esplandián"), a chivalric romance that centered around a mythical island called “California,” ruled by one Queen Califa and her band of female warriors. The tale enticed Spanish explorers to set sail for the legendary island, and while they eventually discovered that California was not, in fact, an island, they—along with mapmakers of the day—were smitten enough with the tale that the name became official.
Colorado: Seeing red
Colorado lifted its moniker from the 1,450-mile Colorado River, which now serves as a source of water for more than 40 million people. Spying the muddy red silt deposited in the river's path, Spanish explorers of the late 1500s dubbed the waterway “Colorado,” Spanish for ruddy or reddish.
Connecticut: State of flow
Connecticut residents sometimes refer to their home as the Nutmeg State after the nutmeg peddlers of old, or the Constitution State in recognition of its claim of being the first state to adopt a constitution. But the actual state name derives from the Anglicized spelling of the Algonquian word for the Connecticut River, the longest river in New England: “quinnehtukqut,” meaning “at the long tidal river.”
Delaware: Baron of the bay
Delaware, which in 2018 ranked ninth in the country for the highest percentage of millionaires, was named after an appropriately well-heeled personage. In a nod to Baron De La Warr, the first colonial governor of Virginia, English sailor Samuel Argall dubbed the southern cape of the state’s bay (now called Cape Henlopen) "Cape De La Warr" when he landed on it in 1610.
Florida: Flower power
From the coral reefs to the Everglades, Florida is teeming with awe-inspiring natural splendors that did not go unnoticed by European newcomers. In fact, when he made landfall in 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon christened the territory Florida after “Pascua Florida,” Spanish for “festival of flowers.” Today, the Sunshine State celebrates Pascua Florida Day every year on April 2 to commemorate de Leon’s expedition.
Georgia: Royal requirement
Want a state named in your honor? Get a royal title and order it be done. That’s exactly what King George II of England did when he granted a royal charter in 1732 for the establishment of the 13th colony—with the stipulation that it be named after him. The name "Georgia" has stuck ever since.
Hawaii: Domain of deities
Hawaii’s surreal beauty seems otherworldly, so it’s apt that the state name is believed to derive from the Proto-Polynesian word “hawaiki,” or "place of the gods." Where exactly is this paradisiacal place? Locals believe the name refers to Mauna Kea, a volcano that is said to host Poliʻahu, the goddess of snow, and Mauna Loa, a volcano believed to be the home of the volcano goddess Pele.
Idaho: A real gem?
As Congress was organizing new territories in the late 1850s, political lobbyist George Willing suggested the name “Idaho,” which he claimed came from a Shoshone phrase for “gem of the mountain.” No such meaning was ever confirmed, and Willing later admitted that he invented the word and falsified its provenance. To further complicate matters, some scholars believe that Idaho is an English pronunciation of the Kiowa-Apache word “idaahe,” which means "enemy," while others believe it to be a variation of the Coeur d'Alene word for "greetings by surprise."
Illinois: French twist
Although the Native Americans who once occupied the central Mississippi River valley called themselves the Inoca, Ojibwe neighbors, Christian missionaries, and French explorers called them the Illiniwek or Illini. The French spelling of the tribal nation was "Illinois," and so was cemented the name of the Prairie State—although the “-ois” suffix was pronounced “oy” rather than the French “wah.” Today, the descendants of the many tribes who made up the Illinois Confederation are united as the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.
Indiana: Home turf
The land that is now Indiana exchanged hands several times in its history, passing from the French to the English, and then to the Americans. When in 1800 a new territory was carved out of the Northwest Territory, it was given the name "Indiana" for the Native Americans who lived there. The Indiana Territory was subdivided to create the Michigan Territory in 1805, and the remaining southern portion became the state of Indiana in 1816.
Iowa: Sleeping beauty
The name of the state and the river that flows through it were sourced from the Dakota word “ayuxbe,” which means “sleepy ones,” and is believed to have been used jokingly to describe the Baxoje tribe. The pronunciation we use today comes from “Ioway,” the French spelling of "ayuxbe."
Kansas: Sioux source
Poet Walt Whitman may have been the first to refer to the people of Kansas as “Kansians” in his 1855 collection, “Leaves of Grass,” but it certainly wasn’t the famed writer who coined the state’s name. Kansas gets its name from the Kansas River, which itself comes from the Sioux word for the Kansa, or Kaw, tribe, meaning “people of the south wind.”
Kentucky: Miles of meadows
Daniel Boone was one of the earliest European settlers to venture into the Bluegrass State, but the land he explored had long been the home of the Iroquois and Shawnee tribes. In fact, the state known for its grassland is thought to be named after the Iroquois word for "meadow" or the Iroquois word for "land of tomorrow."
Louisiana: Praise for the king
French explorer René-Robert Cavelier de la Salle named the Louisiana Territory in honor of King Louis XIV of France while canoeing down the Mississippi River in 1682. The territory was later acquired by Spain, briefly ceded to France, and then purchased by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase, which constituted 828,000 square miles, doubled the size of the nascent United States. Though it's certainly the deal of the century, because the United States was forced to borrow money to pay for the land, the total cost after interest exceeded $23 million.
Maine: Mainland moniker
Believe it or not, midsize Maine, with all its narrow peninsulas and small islands, has the most coastline of any state. In fact, it is believed that the state's name comes from the nautical term "main" (as in "mainland") to distinguish it from the many coastal islands surrounding it. On the other hand, some believe that the state was named after a former French province.
Maryland: Her Majesty
Although it was King Charles I who granted the charter to establish the colony of Maryland in 1623, it was his wife, Henrietta Maria of France, queen consort of England, whose name it bears to this day—but not by her request. As the story goes, Sir George Calvert left the name of the colony blank on the charter, presuming Charles wanted to name it after himself. But as other places in the colonies already bore his name, Charles called it after his beloved wife.
Massachusetts: Humble hill
Today, Bostonians may recognize Great Blue Hill as the site of the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, but they may not know that this, the highest point in Norfolk County, also inspired the state’s name. Massachusetts was named after the indigenous Massachusett people who made the hill their home; "Massachusett," in fact, means “great hill” in Algonquian.
Michigan: Lake lingo
They don’t call Michigan the Great Lakes State for nothing. The state gets its moniker from the second largest of the Great Lakes in volume: Lake Michigan, or “michi-gama” in Chippewa, meaning “great water."
Minnesota: Murky past
After decades of cleanup efforts, the waters of the Minnesota River, which is the source of the state's name, are safe for fishing though still subject to agricultural runoff and soil erosion. And judging from the Dakota people's name for the river, this murky state of affairs is nothing new. The Dakota referred to the river as “mnisota,” meaning "cloudy or milky water."
Mississippi: Big talk
The inspiration for songs like Jimmie Rodgers’s “Mississippi Delta Blues” and Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” the fabled river has nurtured and, at times, threatened life as it travels through the center of the United States. But who named the vital waterway that forms the Magnolia State's western boundary? The word comes from the Ojibwan “msi-ziibi,” meaning “great river.”
Missouri: Canoe culture
Missouri's name comes from the name of its indigenous inhabitants, the Missouria. Although the tribe called themselves the Niúachi, the state name is derived from the Illinois word for "those who have canoes," which is how they described the tribe. The descendants of these first inhabitants today live primarily in Oklahoma and are federally recognized as the Otoe–Missouria Tribe of Indians.
Montana: Rocky start
The state name is a derivative of the Spanish word "montaña," meaning “mountain.” U.S. Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio first proposed the name when Idaho Territory was being created, and put it forth again in 1864, when a new territory was being carved out from the Dakota Territory. The name pays homage to the Rocky Mountains, which cut through the western portion of the state.
Nebraska: Platte provenance
Nebraska derives from “nibraska” in the Omaha language or “nibrathge” in the Otoe language, which both translate to "flat water" and were used to describe the Platte River.
Nevada: S’no secret
In winter, the striking, snow-capped Sierra Nevadas leave an indelible impression on visitors—including those who named the state, evidently. The moniker for the mountain range after which Nevada was named comes from the Spanish word “nevado,” meaning "snowy."
Related: The 21 Wildest Places in America
New Hampshire: Across the pond
Believe it or not, New Hampshire was named by a man who never set foot in the state. After receiving a land grant in 1623, Captain John Mason named the Granite State after his own English county of Hampshire, but then died in 1635, shortly before he was scheduled to make the voyage.
New Jersey: Amicable split
Although the Lenape, or Delaware, called this land home long before the Europeans arrived, the state was named by Englishmen who pushed these original inhabitants out of the region: Sir George Carteret (who oversaw the east portion) and Lord John Berkeley (who presided over the west). New Jersey was named in honor of the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, where Carteret had once been governor.
New Mexico: Aztec inspiration
While it's tempting to assume that New Mexico was named after Mexico, the naming of the state predated that of the country by some 223 years. Spanish settlers who acquired this land in 1598 as part of the Imperial Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain dubbed it “Nuevo México” (meaning "New Mexico") after the Aztec Valley of Mexico.
New York: Derived from a duke
Newcomers to the Empire State may be surprised to learn that it began life as New Amsterdam when it was claimed by the Dutch in 1626. It was not until 1664, when the Dutch ceded control to the English, that the territory became New York, named after the Duke of York. In 1673, the Dutch briefly regained control and renamed the land “New Orange,” but the occupation was brief and the name reverted to New York for good in 1674.
North Carolina: Charles’s charter
Carolina is Latin for "land of Charles,” a fitting tribute to three kings by the name of Charles who played a role in its establishment. Charles IX of France financed the exploration of the land in 1563 or 1564. Charles I of England provided grants for the development of the land in 1629. Lastly, Charles II of England provided a charter for the establishment of the Carolina colony in 1663.
North Dakota: Friendly frontier
While North Dakota is known for its vast, inhospitable badlands, its state name paints a kinder, gentler picture. The state is named for the Dakota tribe, whose name means "friend" or "ally."
Ohio: Good start
The Iroquois, who settled between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes in the mid-17th century, provided the name for the Buckeye State. The source is the Seneca (Iroquois) word “ohiyo,” which translates to “good river" or "great river," fitting appellations for the easily navigable 981-mile-long tributary of the Mississippi.
Oklahoma: Choctaw connection
Oregon: Pedigrees aplenty
Historians and locals continue to speculate about the origin of Oregon’s state name 160 years after its admission to the union. The most popular theories cite "ouragon," the name Native Americans used for what is now called the Columbia River; the Spanish word “orejon,” meaning “big ears,” used by Spanish settlers to describe locals; and even the herb oregano, which grows in the southern part of the state. Linguist Ives Goddard and historian Thomas Love more recently attributed the name to the Mohegan “wauregan,” meaning “the beautiful”—a description few Oregonians will dispute.
Pennsylvania: Into the woods
Although it was William Penn who founded this state as a Quaker colony, Pennsylvania, which literally means “Penn’s Woods,” is the namesake of Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn. Charles II suggested the name because the admiral had lent the king money that was then doled out to young Penn to acquire the land needed for the settlement.
Rhode Island: Miniature Mediterranean
Struck by the similarity between Block Island and the Greek island of Rhodes, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano is believed to have bestowed the name of the Mediterranean island on it sometime around 1524. By the 17th century, the English had extended the name of the island to the state's mainland.
South Carolina: Northern nomenclature
Because both South and North Carolina were part of an expanse of land known as the Carolinas, both names share the same origin story. The two states were one until the Carolinas were formally divided around 1729, although the actual year is a subject of much contention.
South Dakota: Twin territories
Like the Carolinas, the Dakotas share a name (and its derivation) and were a single unit until the Dakota Territory was sliced up into North Dakota and South Dakota in 1889.
Tennessee: Cherokee capital
Renowned playwright Thomas Lanier Williams III adopted the name Tennessee Williams after his father’s home state. The name of the state that inspired the pen name came from the Cherokee village of Tanasi in present-day Monroe County, which served as the Cherokee capital until about 1730.
Texas: Southern hospitality
Utah: Mountain men
The Wasatch Mountains, the western edge of the Rockies, are studded with impressive peaks like Mount Nebo and Mount Timpanogos. These mountains were home to the “Utes,” a Western tribe whose name translates to "people of the mountains." It is believed that the state's name derives from the tribe's name.
Vermont: Going green
This New England state was named by people who were perhaps still finding their footing in the French language when they based its name on the French words for “green mountain.” To convey that meaning properly in French, the name should have been “Montvert” instead of “Vermont,” but the state’s lush landscape more than makes up for the poor translation.
Virginia: Elizabethan epithet
Washington: By George
West Virginia: Royal rebellion
Like Virginia, West Virginia was named after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. But West Virginia struck out on its own in 1863 as the only state to be admitted to the Union during the Civil War. True to the state’s motto, “Mountaineers Are Always Free,” the people in the western region of the state chose to form their own state after the rest of Virginia voted to secede from the United States.
Wisconsin: Red river
Wyoming: Vast valley
The name Wyoming is thought to have first appeared in Thomas Campbell’s 1809 poem “Gertrude of Wyoming,” but it wasn’t until 1865 that U.S. Representative of Ohio, James M. Ashley, proposed the name “Wyoming Territory” after the Wyoming Valley. But where did the word for the Wyoming Valley come from? It comes from the Munsee word "xwé:wamənk," which means "at the big river flat."
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