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The Nitty-gritty of How the 50 US States Got Their Names

How did the 50 U.S. States Get their Names
You might know the history of how the United States came into being and all the phases it went through that constructed and altered the entire nation. Here's getting to the nitty-gritty of how all the U.S. states got their names.
Shruti Bhat
Last Updated: Apr 29, 2018
Did You Know?
America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who set forth a revolutionary concept that the continents that Christopher Columbus sailed to were part of a separate continent.

If you observe carefully, you will find that many states have been named after dukes, kings, queens, presidents, islands, and other places that the travelers and explorers fancied. But most names were christened by native Indians. These names mostly described the place and characteristics of the land. One of the states was even named after an Aztec God!

Due to varied explorers who came to the US, the various states have been heavily influenced by many languages such as Latin, English, Spanish,etc. However most states used a variety of indigenous languages for their christening. Here's a list of how all the states were named along with some of its history behind their name.
Origin of All 50 State Names
There are two stories of how the state derived its name. One is that it was named after the Alabama River, which was then called Alibamu by the local Indian tribe. Another story suggests that the state got its name from the Choctaw word albah amo, meaning plant cutters or ticket-clearers.

The word "Alaska" originated from Aleut word alaxsxaq (ah-lock-shock), translating to the object towards which the action of the sea is directed as well as great land. Aleuts were Russian fur traders who inhabited Alaska in the 18th century.

There are at least two different stories to how Arizona derived its name. One suggests that the name originated from the Basque word aritz onak, meaning territory. Another story suggests that the name comes from the Spanish word Arizonac or ali ona-g, translating to little spring.

When the first Europeans arrived at America, the French explorers were shown around by the Illinois Indians who referred to the Ugakhpa people (natives of Arkansas) as Akansa. Akansa meant, people of the south wind or wind people. The French added in the r along with the s in the word and made it to what it is today.

California has three stories behind its name. One of which the scholars believe that the name was derived from the Catalan words calor, meaning hot and forn, meaning oven. The second story is a Native American phrase: kali forno, meaning high hill.

The third story is a fascinating one. It is believed that California was named after an imaginary place of the same name. It was created and referred in a Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo's novel Las Sergas de Esplandián. He mentioned of an island that this mystical place was a home to the Griffin, mythical creatures, and Amazonian women without a single man among them (as relationships). This place was ruled by Queen Califia. This island was a wildest place on Earth, abundant in gold and precious stones.

Early Spanish explorers of the Rocky Mountains called a river as Rio Colorado, which carried red silt down the mountains along its way. Thus, Colorado got its name from the Spanish adjective ruddy, meaning red.

Connecticut was named after the river Connecticut, which was named quinnitukqut by the Mohegans. The name meant beside the long tidal river or long river place.

Delaware too was named after Delaware River and Bay. However, the river and bay were named after Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr. He was a colonial governor of Virginia. De La Werre was an Old French word for a warrior or of the war.

Florida was named after the Easter as it was discovered on Palm Sunday by Juan Ponce de León. The holiday is called Pascua Florida, meaning feast of flowers or strikingly beautiful.

Georgia was named after King George II of Great Britain, whose name originated from the Latin word Georgius and/or Greek word Georgos, which is derived from ge, meaning earth and ergon, meaning work.

Not many are certain about how Hawaii got its name. However, some believe that the name was derived from the Proto-Polynesian Sawaiki, meaning homeland. The natives of these islands called themselves as Hawaiki, meaning hawa- homeland and ii- active.

The origin of how the state got its name is unclear. Some believe it to be a Kiowa-Apache or the Athabaskan word idaahe, meaning enemy. Others believe it to be derived from the Shoshone Indian term ee-da-how, meaning gem of the mountains or the sun comes from the mountains.However, many researchers believe that the name was not derived from any Indian word. The origin of the name still remains a mystery.

There are two stories behind the name Illinois. Some believe that it was derived from a French word ilinwe from the Algonquian's who called themselves as Inoca or Ilinouek, which meant ordinary speaker. Others believe it to be what the natives of Illinois called themselves, mostly meaning tribe of superior men.

Indiana is derived from the English word Indian added with the Latin suffix -ana, which means Land of the Indians or Indian Land.

Iowa was named after the natives of Chiwere natives who were from the Aiouan family. They called themselves Ioway.

Kansas was also named Kansa or kka:ze tribe, meaning people of the south wind. The etymological root is similar to Arkansas; however, the pronunciation of the two are different.

The word 'Kentucky' is derived from the Iroquoian word Ken-tah-ten, meaning land of tomorrow, at the prairie, meadow, river bottom, at the field, and priarie. Many believe that the word has its roots in several languages such as Shawnee or Wyandot, all meaning the same.

The state was named in honor of Louis XIV of France. Louisiana comes from La Louisiane, meaning Land of Louis.

Origin of the Maine's name is uncertain. Some believe it to be named after the French province of Maine.

Maryland was named after Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England.

Massachusetts is named after the natives of the state called the Moswetuset, meaning hill shaped like an arrowhead, referring to Moswetuset Hummock. The name also stands for about/at /near the great hill.

Michigan is derived from the French word misshikama (mish-ih-GAH-muh), meaning big/large lake water.

The word Minnesota comes from a Dakota tribe called mnisota―mni meaning water and sota meaning muddy or cloudy.

Mississippi was named after the Mississippi river. The river derived its name from the Ojibwa word messipi or misi-sipi or misi-ziibi, all meaning big water.

Missouri River was named after its inhabitants. The tribe was initially called ouemessourita, translated as he of the big canoe or those who have dugout canoes or wooden canoe people.

Montana was a corrupted version of the Spanish word montaña, meaning mountain. This state got its name because of its 3,510 mountain peaks.

The word 'Nabraska' comes from the Oto Indian word Ñí Brá(h)sge translating to flat water. It was in reference to the Platte river that flows through the state.

Nevada stands for the Spanish word snowfall. It was in reference to the snow-clad mountains of the state.

New Hampshire
New Hampshire was named after the English county of Hampshire, which was named after the city of Southampton, an Old English as Hamtun, meaning village or town and the surrounding area scir, making it Hamtunscir.

New Jersey
New Jersey was named by Sir George Cartert, who was one of the state's proprietor. He named it after the Channel island of Jersey.

New Mexico
New Mexico used to be a part of Mexico. Both took their names after the Nahuatl Mexihco. The word Mexico might have been in reference to Mextli, which is another name for Huitzilopochtli, who was an Aztec god of war. The name 'Mexico' translates to place of Mexitli.

New York
New York City and the state were named after Duke of York and future King James II of England. The old York was named after the Eboracum, which meant place of the yew trees or Yew-trees estate.

North Carolina
South and North Carolina were named after King Charles II. Carolina is derived from the Latin variation Carous, which happens to stand for Charles.

North Dakota
Be it north or south Dakota, both were named after the natives of the plains who called themselves, dakhota, meaning friendly or ally.

Though there are no strong evidences of how the name came into being, some believe it was derived from Seneca (Iroquoian) and/or Wyandot word ohi:yo meaning large, great, the great one, or beautiful river.

Oklahoma is an amalgamation of two Choctaw words: ukla- person and humá meaning red. In other words, the natives were referring the state to be their territory.

Oregon has many debatable origins about its name. However, here are some possible ways in which the state could have derived its name. One is from the French word ouragan- hurricane. Another story says that the name was derived from the Spanish word orejón, meaning big ears, which was in reference to the natives. Another story suggests the word evolved from the Shoshone word ogwa meaning river and Pe-On- west. Put together, the word means river of the west.

Pennsylvania was granted to Admiral William Penn's son as a pay off for the debt owned by the crown to his father, and so, the state was named after senior Penn. The name was added with suffixes, viz., Sylva meaning woods and nia- a noun suffix, putting it together making it into Pennsylvania, meaning Penn's woodland.

Rhode Island
There are two stories behind who the state was named. One story suggests that Dutch explorer Adrian Block named the state while another believes Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano named it. The stories suggest that the state was named after the Greek Island of Rhodes. The name means red island.

South Carolina
South Carolina separated from the Northern half in 1710. However, both the halves still share the name and honor of being named after Charles II of England.

South Dakota
Though North and South Dakota have been separated, they still share the second half of their names, the meaning being friends or allies.

There are a few stories circulating behind the origin of the name and what it means. One such belief is that Spanish explorer Juan Pardo traveled across Tennessee and named it Tanasqui. Another story suggests that a British trader named the state after the Tanasi village of Cherokee. However, there have been no evidences supporting whether both these individuals crossed the same village or the meaning behind the name.

The word Texas was derived from a Spanish word Tejas or te-shas, meaning friends or allies. Some native tribes used words viz. tayshas,tejas, thecas, texias, etc. to greet one-another.

Utah derived its name from the native tribe called the Utes who were also called Nuutsiu. The tribal names too might have been derived from the Apache word yuttahih or yiuta. The tribe spoke a language called, ute meaning Land of the Sun.

Vermont got its name from French words vert meaning green and mont meaning mountain; both put together meaning Green Mountain. However, who actually christened the land is still debatable.

Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth I of England who was also referred to as the Virgin Queen.

Washington was named after the first President of the United States, George Washington. The surname, however, means estate of a man named Wassa in Old English.

West Virginia
West Virginia separated from the main state of Virginia around the American Civil War. However, its roots and origin behind their christening remain the same.

Wisconsin derived its name from the river of the same name, which was called Meskousing by the Algonquian speaking tribes. The word meant it lies red, due to the reddish sandstone of the region.

Wyoming received its name from the Indian word mecheweami-ing, meaning on the big plains.