Stupid Question ™
April 11, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: What are the origins of the names of all the U.S. states?
—Johannsen, from the Internet
A: The most common origin is terms from the Native Americans the states displaced, typically of dubious translation, and filtered through English, French, Spanish or even Russian.
Where a credible translation is known, it often refers either to a local tribe or a major waterway or region. (Many of the following states were definitely named based on the Native American-derived name for a river or lake.) Possible tribe-derived names include: Alabama, Arkansas, North/South Dakota, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and Utah.
Possible waterway/region-derived names include: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Tennessee is known to be of Native American origin, but its meaning is a mystery. Some sources propose it came from the name of a town.
Hawaii is a native Polynesian name of unknown origin, possibly referring to its original discoverer or a legendary Polynesian motherland.
Iowa comes with varying guesses, either as a possible place name, or an insulting term for a tribe known as the “sleepy ones.”
Wyoming is an oddball in the bunch. It’s named for the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, which in turn was derived from an Algoquin/Delaware term meaning something like “large plains,” which in turn may be an English invention made by mashing Native American words together.
Naming states for people is also popular. Georgia was named for England’s King George II.
Maryland was dedicated to Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of England’s King Charles I. Ol’ Chuck himself was memorialized with North/South Carolina, the feminized (as place names always are) adjectival version of his name in Latin.
Virginia (and by extension, West Virginia) was named for England’s Queen Elizabeth I, known as the “Virgin Queen.” Louisiana comes from the French La Louisianne, their name for the whole Mississippi Valley, which was a French colony under the eponymous King Louis XIV.
Among lesser royalty, Delaware was named for the bay and river, which in turn were named for Thomas West, Baron (Lord) De La Warr, who was a governor at Virginia’s Jamestown colony. New York was a tribute to James Stuart, the Duke of York and Albany. York, of course, is a district of England.
George Washington, who refused to become royalty at all, gave his name to Washington State. Pennsylvania, a Latinized form of “Penn’s woodland,” is named in theory for state founder William Penn’s father, conveniently also named William.
Foreign (though not foreign during the original colonial period) or modern Latin descriptive phrases are responsible for several names. Colorado (Spanish for “reddish”) originally referred to the Colorado River. Florida is Spanish for “filled with flowers”; it can also refer to “Feast of Flowers,” or Easter, and the state’s land was reputed spotted by Ponce de le Leon on Easter Sunday.
Montana is modern Latin for “mountainous area.” Nevada, which means “snow-covered” in Spanish, originally referred to the Sierra Nevada mountains, not the desert interior. Vermont is a flipped-around corruption of the French “Les Monts Verts,” or “Green Mountains”—also the name of the state’s major mountain chain.
New Mexico’s origin is pretty obvious, as are the English-dubbed New Hampshire and New Jersey.
Rhode Island’s name is a mystery that could be a foreign phrase or a borrowed place name. Some argue it means “red island,” from the Dutch “roodt,” while others propose it was named in honor of the Greek island and seaport of Rhodes.
A few state names were deliberately invented. Indiana is modern Latin for “land of the Indians.” Idaho is fake Native American and doesn’t mean anything as far as anyone can tell.
Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw words for “red” and “people.” But it’s not a Choctaw term. Instead, it was invented by European-Americans as a term for the area in which they planned to dump all the Native Americans they drove out of other places.
California is an invented term of fantastical, quasi-mythical origins. It’s the name of an island populated by gold-clad Amazons, ruled by a Queen Calafia, in a 1510 Spanish romance. Taken seriously by many explorers, it gave its name to the modern state, which indeed was depicted as an island on early maps of the Pacific coast.
The only name of utterly mysterious origin is the rather plain Maine. Some speculate it referred to the mainland of New England (a la the “Spanish Main”). Others suggest an inspiration in the French province of Maine, though no clear link has been established.