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Do You Know The Meaning Behind Your State's Name?

Aaron Foster

The origin of your state's name is one of those funny things you could live your whole life without learning.

All 50 of our country's states have a unique story behind their monikers. You may be surprised to learn the meaning of yours.

Alabama

The state takes its name from the American Indian tribes who lived along the Alabama River. The name is believed to combine the Choctaw words for "vegetation" and "picker," so its literal meaning is "vegetation gatherers."

Alaska

This name was given to the Alaskan territory by the Russians. It's taken from an Aleut Indian word, alaxsxaq, meaning "facing the sea" or "where the sea breaks."

Arizona

There are two disputed meanings behind the name Arizona:

It either comes from aritz ona, or "good oak" in Basque, since the state had many Basque settlers.

It could also mean aleh-zon, or "little spring," from the native Papago Indian dialect.

Arkansas

Illinois Indian guides for European settlers called the state's native Quawpaw Indian tribes Akansa, or "wind people."

Pronunciation was up for debate until 1881, when the state legislature settled on "Ar-ken-saw" instead of "Ar-kan-sas."

California

California was originally the name of a fictional island in the West Indies, from a Spanish novel Las Sergas de Esplandián by writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo. The magical island was said to be full of gold, so Spanish explorers were probably hopeful they would find some there.

California was mistaken for an island, and later a peninsula, until the 1700s.

Colorado

Colorado is Spanish for red, and named for the color of the Colorado River, which carries red dirt.

Connecticut

Like other states, Connecticut is named after the river that bears its name. The word itself is from Quinnehtukqut, the Algonquian word for "beside the long tidal river."

Delaware

The state and the river that flows through it were both named for Thomas West, Baron of de la Warr. He was the original governor of the colony of Virginia.

Florida

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived off the coast of Florida just after Easter 1513. Florida is the name for the Easter season in Spanish, but it also means "flowery."

Georgia

The state is named after a colony founded there in the 1733, and named for the then-current King of England, George II.

Hawaii

In Hawaiian myths, both the home of their gods and the legendary homeland of the Polynesian people is named Hawaiki, and the state took its name from that.

The word itself may mean "new homeland" or "small homeland." The legendary explorer who is said to have discovered the island is also named Hawaii Loa.

Idaho

Mining lobbyist George M. Willing coined the word "Idaho" as a name for what later became Colorado. He wrote to Congress that it meant "gem of the mountains" in Shoshone, which is not true.

The name stuck, however, and new landmarks and services were named "Idaho," including Idaho Mine. The mine's name was later given to the state.

Illinois

The state's name comes from Illinois Indians, who settled along what is named the Illinois River.

The word itself is the French pronunciation of the word iliniwok which means "men" or "warriors."

Indiana

Indiana is Latin for "land of the Indians."

Iowa

Iowa is one of the many state names that comes from the local river and American Indian tribe. The Baxoje Tribe were called Ayuxwa, which gradually became Ioway and Iowa in English.

The name Ayuxwa means "sleepy ones" in Dakota Sioux.

Kansas

The Kansa tribe who lived along what would later be called the Kansas River gave the state its name. The exact meaning of Kansa is close to "people of the wind," or "people of the south wind."

Kentucky

Kentucky is one of the few state names that is still unclear. It could be from the Wyandot Indian name for "plain," or similar Iroquois names for "meadow," "prarie," or "field."

What is clear is the state's flat geography inspired its name.

Louisiana

French explorer Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle named this territory after the French King Louis XIV. It means "land of Louis."

Maine

While there is a French province also named Maine, another theory suggests the state was named after the "mainland" by sailors.

Maryland

The charter to form a colony in Maryland was granted by the wife of King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, and named in her honor.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts means "large hill," as in the Blue Hills near modern-day Boston. It was also the name given to the American Indian tribe living around Massachusetts Bay.

Michigan

A French pronunciation of the Ojibwa word misshikama for "big lake" gave Lake Michigan, the tribes surrounding it, and later the state their names.

Another explanation says the Chippewa word majigan, for "clearing," inspired the name.

Minnesota

The Dakota Sioux tribe named the Minnesota River for its cloudy water. The Dakota word mnisota translates to "cloudy" or "muddy water."

Mississippi

The Ojibwa word for "big river," messipi, was adopted by French explorers who gave it to the Mississippi River, which later inspired the state's name.

Missouri

A Sioux tribe that lived along what we call the Missouri River were named ouemessourita ("wooden canoe people") by the Illinois. The tribe used their dugout canoes to navigate the river.

Montana

The Spanish word montaña means "mountain," which you'll find a lot of in "Big Sky Country."

Nebraska

Either the Otoe phrase Ñí Brásge, or the Omaha phrase Ní Btháska, both meaning "flat" or "broad water," inspired the state's name. The river in question is the stat'es Platte River. The modern name also means "flat," plate, in French.

Nevada

The Sierra Nevada mountain range was named by Spanish settlers to the west. The phrase sierra nevada means "snowy range."

New Hampshire

Captain John Mason of England named the colony that would later become a state after the English county of Hampshire, where he grew up.

Mason died in England before he ever had the chance to step foot in the colony.

New Jersey

The pair of men who received the charter for this colony, Sir John Berkley and Sir George Carteret, named it after the island of Jersey from the English Channel, where they had both lived.

New Mexico

The Spanish were the first to call the area of this state Nuevo Mexico. Mexico is an Aztec word meaning "place of Mexitli," who was an Aztec god of war.

New York

New York state (and the city of the same name) are named after James Stuart, the Duke of York. Stuart later became England's King James II.

The word York may have come from the Celtic Eborakon, meaning "place of the yew trees."

North Carolina

Both North and South Carolina (which were once the same colony) were named for France's King Charles IX. The meaning behind the name later changed to England's Kings Charles I and II.

The word Carolina is Latin for Charles.

North Dakota

North and South Dakota are both named after the Dakota Sioux tribe. In the Sioux language, Dakota means "friend."

Ohio

Iroquois Indians named the Ohio River with their word for a large or beautiful river, and the name was later given to the state.

Oklahoma

The Choctaw Indian words ukla for "person" and humá for "red" combine to form their name for Native Americans, and their territory. The name was coined by Choctaw Nation chief Allen Wright.

Oregon

There are competing theories about how Oregon got its name and what it means:

  • It comes from the French word for hurricane, ouragan, because the Columbia River was nicknamed "Hurricane River."
  • The Spanish word orejon or "big ear," which referred to local Indian tribes, may also have inspired the name.
  • Finally, it may be named after orégano, the Spanish word for wild sage, which grows in the state.

Pennsylvania

The colony's founder was named William Penn. Sylvania is Latin for "woods." So Pennsylvania translates to "Penn's woods."

Rhode Island

A Dutch explorer named the island Roodt Eylandt, which is Dutch for "red island," since the shore was made of red clay.

The name was adapted for English speakers, and Roodt became Rhode.

South Carolina

Both North and South Carolina (which were once the same colony) were named for France's King Charles IX. The meaning behind the name later changed to England's Kings Charles I and II.

The word Carolina is Latin for Charles.

South Dakota

North and South Dakota are both named after the Dakota Sioux tribe. In the Sioux language, Dakota means "friend."

Tennessee

A pair of Cherokee villages named Tanasi sat on the banks of the Little Tennessee River. They gave the body of water its name, and the river gave the state its name.

The exact meaning of the village's name is not clear.

Texas

The Caddo Indian word teysha, meaning "friend," was used as a greeting between Spanish settlers and friendly tribes. The name eventually applied to the people of the region, and later the territory itself.

Utah

The Apache called Navajo Indians Yuttahih, or "one that is higher up." European settlers misunderstood the word, and thought it referred to the Ute tribe. The territory was named Utah, meaning "land of the Utes" or "land of the sun," because of the mixed signals.

Vermont

Vermont is a combination of two French words: vert for "green" and mont for "mountain." French explorer Samuel de Champlain gave the name to the state's Green Mountains.

Virginia

Queen Elizabeth I of England was nicknamed "the Virgin Queen," because she never married or had children. The colony was named in her honor.

Washington

No points for guessing, Washington is named after America's first president, George Washington.

West Virginia

Queen Elizabeth I of England was nicknamed "the Virgin Queen," because she never married or had children. The colony was named in her honor.

West Virginia split from the rest of the state in 1863, during the Civil War.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is either a Chippewa word meaning "grassy place," or derives from the Miami Indian word meskonsing, for "it lies red." The red sandstone in the Washington Dells is the explanation for the second possible origin.

Wyoming

Newspaper publisher Legh Freeman claimed he came up with the name Wyoming, which comes from the Dakota word mscheweamiing, for "large plains."

Were you surprised by your state's name?

[H/T: NetState]