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Origins of US State Names

Origins of US State NamesBig Do you know how your state got its name? Here are the etymologies of the names of all the US states based on the best available linguistic evidence; references to our sources are included with each etymology. In the opinion of Robert Louis Stevenson, "There is no part of the world, where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous and picturesque as in the United States of America."

The names of the places where we live reveal that, as the Europeans took over the lands of the native populations living in North America, they retained much of the beauty of their languages, many now long dead. Read below to see how the names of our states are memorials to lost native populations—and a few European monarchs who "granted" Native American lands to European settlers.

Alabama The Yellowhammer StateAlabama was named after the Alabama River. The river was named for the Alabama Indians originally living in region of that river, a subgroup of the Chickasaws and not the current Alabamas. The appellation first appeared in three accounts of the Hernando de Soto expedition of 1540, spelled Alibamo by Garcillasso de la Vega, Alibamu by the Knight of Elvas, and Limamu by Rodrigo Ranjel (in the last form, the loss of the initial vowel and the replacement of [b] by [m] were common in the language). It is possible that Alabama originated as a compound noun based on Choctaw, alba "vegetation, plants, herbs" + amo "gatherer, picker". "Plant gatherers" would be an apt description of the Alabama Indians of that time since they did clear land for farming. (Reference)
Alaska The Last FrontierAlaska came from an Aleut (Yupik) word alaxsxaq [ah-lock-shock] "the mainland, the land facing the sea". The Russians were the first Europeans in Alaska and they pronounced the word Alyaska. When the US purchased Alaska from the Russians the name was only slightly modified to what it is today. (Reference)
Arizona The Grand Canyon StateCalling this state the "arid zona" is cute and semantically appropriate but it is only someone's idea of word play. Arizona was inherited from the Spanish Arizonac, a word virtually identical to Basque arizonac "good oak". However, it isn't clear why the Spanish would choose a Basque word for (at the time) a Mexican territory and the semantic fit is weaker than that of arid zona. The name of this state is most probably a Native American word, possibly an O'odham (Pima) word meaning "having a little spring" made up of ali "little" + sona-g "spring-having"—plus a little corruption from the Spanish. (See Bright, William Native American Placenames of the United States, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004, p. 47.)

The Natural StateThe first French explorers back in the 17th century met a native people in the Mississippi delta country who called themselves the Ugakhpa "downstream people". The French spelled this name variously as Kappa, Cappa or Quapaw, the last finally becoming the accepted transliteration of the original Dhegilan Siouan name. The Algonquian-speaking Illinois people who accompanied the French explorers called the Quapaw Akansa "wind people". This was the name that stuck.

In 1811 the explorer Zebulon Pike dubbed the river the Arkansaw, probably from the pronunciation of Akansa in the speech of Europeans in the area at the time. After Pike, however, others chose the French spelling, Arkansas, with the silent S, but insisted on pronouncing the S: [ar-kan-zus], like the pronunciation of the state of Kansas. Some 40-odd years after statehood, the Arkansas General Assembly finally split the difference: the state's name will be spelled Arkansas but pronounced [ar-ken-saw]. (Reference 1 Reference 2)

California The Golden StateCalifornia existed in European literature long before the region was discovered. The earliest known publication of the word was in the 1510 romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandian (1510) by Spanish author Garcma Ordsqez de Montalvo. The book described the Island of California as being west of the Indies and inhabited by black women only. It is apparently a combination of the Romance language roots cali- "hot" + forn- "oven". Spanish missionaries referred to the land in Latin as a calida fornax "hot oven". (Reference)
Colorado The Centennial StateColorado is a Spanish adjective meaning "red-colored" or "dirtyl". It origianally referred to the Colorado River. The name was chosen as the name for the Colorado Territory in 1861 by Congress. (Reference)
Connecticut The Constitution StateConnecticut was named for the Connecticut River, which was named by the Mohegans (Mohicans), in whose Algonquian language the word, quinnitukqut means "beside the long river." (Reference)
Delaware The First StateThis state took its name from the Delaware River and the Delaware Bay, both of which were named for Sir Thomas West, the 12th Baron De La Warr. The Delaware Indians were given their name by English settlers. They are, in fact, the Lenape, in whose language lenape means "people". (Reference)
Florida The Sunshine StateFlorida is the feminine singular form of Spanish florido "flowery", feminine from the phrase pascua florida "feast of flowers", a Spanish name for the Easter season. (Reference)
Georgia The Peach StateThis state was named in honor of King George II of England. Around 1730 James Oglethorpe formulated a plan to obtain the release of people from London's debtors' prison and to establish a new colony, south of Carolina, to be inhabited by the "worthy poor" of London. In a Royal Charter signed June 20, 1732, King George II granted the right for the colony of Georgia and in February, 1733, a small group of settlers sailed up the Savannah River and established the colony. In gratitude to King George II the colony was named Georgia. ( Reference)
Hawaii The Aloha StateThe name of this archipelago state was taken from the largest island. Though Captain James Cook called the islands the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich in 1778, King Kamehameha I united the islands under his rule 1819 as the Kingdom of Hawaii. One theory of the origin of the name of the largest island is that it was an old compound noun based on the words hawa "homeland" and ii "small, active". The other theory is that the name comes from Hawaii Loa who, according to tradition, was the Polynesian who originally discovered them. Neither explanation is supported by evidence, however. (Reference)
Idaho The Gem StateThe claim that Idaho's name is the result of a hoax is itself a hoax (click here). Idaho is an English corruption of the Kiowa-Apache word idaahe "enemy", a name the Kiowas applied to the Comanches when they migrated to southern Colorado and came in contact with them in territory the Comanches considered their own. The move led to war among the two tribes. This word is still found in the name of Idaho Springs, now in the Denver-Aurora metro area. It spread east to Ohio (Pike County) and other eastern states and was applied, for whatever reason, to Idaho when it was established as a territory on March 4, 1863. (See Bright, William Native American Placenames of the United States, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004, p. 177.)
Illinois The Prairie StateThis state is named for the Illinois River which was named by French explorers after the indigenous Illiniwek people, a consortium of Algonquian tribes that thrived in the area. The word Illiniwek means "tribe of superior men". (Reference)
Indiana The Hoosier StateThis state has one of the most obvious names in the US with the rather ironic meaning, "the land of Indians." It was given to the Indiana Territory by the United States Congress when Indiana was created from the Northwest Territory in 1800. Indiana joined the Union in 1816 as the 19th state.
Iowa The Hawkeye StateThe state of Iowa was named for the Native Americans living in that territory at the time, the Iowas. Despite the report of the 1879 General Assembly of Iowa, which proclaimed that this word means "the beautiful land", it is actually a Dakota Sioux word given to the Iowas in jest meaning "sleepy ones". The Iowas call themselves [bah-ko-jay] "the gray/ashy heads". According to tradition, this name came from an incident in their history when, while camping in the Iowa River valley, a gust of wind blew a cloud of sand and campfire ashes onto their heads. (Reference)
Kansas The Sunflower StateThis state was named after the Kansas River that flows through it. The river was named after the Kaw, an American Indian people of the central Midwestern United States. The Kaw have also been known as the Kanza, a word some say means "Wind People". However, no evidence supports this claim. If it had any meaning other than to designate the Kanza people, it was probably "plum". (Reference)
Kentucky The Bluegrass StateThe Kentucky Encyclopedia claims that the state of Kentucky was named for the Kentucky River, as in the case of several other states. The origin of the river's name has never been definitively identified but there have been several suggestions, including an Iroquoian name meaning "place of meadows", an Algonquian term for a river bottom, or a Shawnee term for the head of a river. More likely, however, it comes from the Wyandot (Iroquoian) word kentahteh "tomorrow, the coming day", a word that originally applied to the Iroquoian possessions on the Ohio but later to the lands to the south of the Ohio. Those territories represented the land where they (the Wyandots) would live tomorrow, in the future." A good translation of the word as it came to apply to the country of Kentucky would then be "The Land of Tomorrow". (Reference)
Louisiana The Pelican StateThe first permanent settlement in the Louisiana Territory was at Fort Maurepas (now Ocean Springs, Mississippi, near Biloxi), founded by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, a French military officer from Canada, in 1699. The French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle named the region Louisiana to honor France's King Louis XIV in 1682. (Reference)
Maine The Pine Tree StateNo one has a clue about this one. The name first appears in writing in 1622 as a province, in a charter of the Council of New England granting land to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason. The portion which came to be Captain Mason's alone in 1629, he named New Hampshire. In the same year, a second charter labeled it Laconia. Gorges volleyed with yet another name for his territory: New Somerset. This was strongly disliked by King Charles; he responded in a 1639 charter that it "shall forever hereafter be called and named the Province or County of Mayne and not by any other name or names whatsoever". Despite the tone of finality, this still was not the last word: other suggestions were Yorkshire, Lygonia and Columbus, the latter two appearing as late as 1819, when statehood was imminent. (Reference)
Maryland The Old Line StateIn 1629, George Calvert, 1st Lord Baltimore in the Irish House of Lords, applied to Charles I (1600-1649) for a new royal charter for what was to become the Province of Maryland, which was at the time the northern part of Virginia. George Calvert died in April 1632, but a charter for "Maryland Colony" (in Latin "Terra Maria") was granted to his son, Caecilius Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, on June 20, 1632. The new colony was named in honor of Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), Queen Consort of Charles I. Three years earlier, Charles established the colony of Carolina. (Reference 1Reference 2)
Massachusetts The Bay StateThe Massachusetts Bay Colony took its name from that of the indigenous Massachusett people. The colony's name probably started out as "the Massachusetts' Bay". The name can be segmented (with English spelling) as mass-achu-s-et, comprising mass "big" + achu "hill" + s "small" (diminutive ending) -et, a locative suffix meaning "place of". It is generally taken as a reference to the Great Blue Hills, visible from the I-93 beltway south of Milton. The problem is that the usual word for "big" in Algonquian is miss, as in missegkon "big rain = hail" and missittspu "big =(heavy) frost", not mass (see also Mississippi and Missouri for other examples of miss "big, large"). Mass usually meant "arrowhead", so the hill was more probably named "Arrowhead Hill". (Reference 1Reference 2Dr. Ives Goddard, Chief Linguist, The Smithsonian Institute (correspondence)
Michigan The Great Lakes State This state was named after Lake Michigan. The word Michigan is a French derivative of the Ojibwe misshikama (read [mish-ih-GAH-muh] "big lake" (compare kitchikama "great lake", pronounced [gitch-ih-GAH-ma] Gitchee-Gumee as rendered by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Reference)
Minnesota The North Star StateThe word Minnesota comes from the Dakota name for the Minnesota River, mnisota, a compound noun made up of mni "water" + sota "cloudy, muddy". Dakotas demonstrated the name to early settlers by dropping milk into water and calling it, "mnisota." Since English does not allow words beginning with [mn], settlers inserted a vowel between these two sounds, producing mini which they wrote as "minne". Many locations in the state contain the Dakota word for water, such as Minnehaha Falls from mni + haha "falls", i.e. "Waterfall Falls" and not "laughing waters" as is commonly thought, Minneiska "white water", Minnetonka, "big water", Minnetrista "crooked water", and Minneapolis which is a combination of mni and Greek polis "city". (Reference)
Mississippi The Magnolia StateMississippi is named for the Mississippi river which forms its western boundary. When Abraham Lincoln wrote, "the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea," in reference to the river in a letter of August 27, 1863, he promoted an urban myth that persists today. In fact, Mississippi never meant "Father of Waters". In 1666 French explorers in the Great Lakes region recorded the Ojibwa (Algonquian) name for the river as Messipi. It was actually the phrase miss sepi "big river" (see also Massachusetts and Missouri for the word miss "big, large"). This name traveled down the length of the river, dominating all others. The French took the name with them as they went down Big River to its delta, and it superseded all the other names for Big River used by local Indian tribes and by earlier Spanish explorers. In 1798 Congress applied the Ojibwa name of the river to the territory of Mississippi, which later became the state. (Reference)
Missouri The Show Me StateMissouri took its name from the Missouri river. The river was named after a tribe of southern Sioux people called the Missouris, who lived along the river. The word missouri at one time meant "large canoe" and was applied both to the people and the place where they lived. (See also Massachusetts and Mississippi for the word miss "big, large".) (Reference)
Montana The Treasure StateThe name of this Northwestern state is a variation of the Spanish word montaña "mountain". No one knows who first applied it or under what circumstances. Subsequent to the Lewis and Clark expedition, Montana became a United States territory (Montana Territory) on May 26, 1864 and the 41st state on November 8, 1889. (Reference)
Nebraska The Cornhusker StateIn 1842 Lieutenant John Fremont set out on an expedition mapping overland routes to the West. In the course of his expedition, he came in contact with the Oto (Missouri-Oto) people living along what is known today as the Platte River. The Otos called the river, according to Fremont, nebraska, which he took to mean "flat river" hence the river's current name. Fremont suggested this name for the territory and in 1844 the Secretary of War approved the name and this region became known as the Nebraska Country. (Reference)
Nevada The Silver StateAlthough the name is derived from the Spanish word nevada "snowy, snow-covered", the local pronunciation of the state's name is not Spanish [neh-vah-dah], but good ol' American [nuh-vae-duh]. The name became official when President James Buchanan created the territory of Nevada March 2, 1861. On October 31, 1864, President Lincoln proclaimed Nevada's admission to the Union as the 36th state. (Reference)
New Hampshire The Granite StateCaptain John Mason received a grant for land in 1629. He named this land New Hampshire after the English county of Hampshire where he had enjoyed a number of years as a child. (Reference)
New Jersey The Garden StateSir John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret received a royal charter from King Charles II for a colony in the New World on June 24, 1664 and named this colony for the island of Jersey in the English Channel. Carteret had been born in Jersey and had spent several years as Lieutenant Governor of the island. Charles II also granted Pennsylvania to William Penn and New York to his cousin James II, the Duke of York. (Reference)
New Mexico The Land of EnchantmentThe region of New Mexico originally belonged to New Spain, as Mexico was called until Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821). It was first explored by Spaniard Francisco de Ibarra in 1562, who called the region Nueva Vizcaya "New Biscay". The name Mexico is a word based on the Nahuatl Mexihco, whose meaning is unclear. Juan de Oqate founded the San Juan colony on the Rio Grande in 1598 and was made the first governor of the new Province of New Mexico, then a part of Mexico. The American government established the New Mexico Territory on September 9, 1850 after defeating Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 with Santa Fe ("Holy Faith") as its capital. (Reference)
New York The Empire StateNew York was named in honor of the Duke of York who received patent to New Netherland from his brother Charles II and sent an expedition to capture it in 1664. The English in the end traded what is today the country of Suriname for New Amsterdam that same year, renaming it New York after the Duke of York, soon to be King James II. Charles II also signed land grants for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (Reference)
North Carolina The Tarheel StateIn 1629, King Charles I of England "erected into a province" all the land from Albemarle Sound on the north to the St. John's River on the south, which he directed should be called Carolina. The word Carolina is from the word Carolus, the Latin form of Charles. Charles I (1600-1649) was King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, from March 27, 1625 until his execution in 1649. In 1632 he also established the colony of Maryland. There was one state of Carolina until 1729 when owners of the northern part of the territory sold their interests back to the King and North Carolina became a royal colony. (Reference)
North Dakota The Peace Garden StateNorth and South Dakota were one territory until 1889. Dakota was named for the Dakota, a Sioux people who lived in the region, featured in the motion picture, Dances with Wolves. Dakota is apparently a Sioux word for "friends" or "allies." (Reference)
Ohio The Buckeye StateA widely held fallacy is that Ohio is an Iroquoian name meaning "beautiful river." This myth originated with a French traveler of about 1750 who called the Ohio "une belle riviere" and mentioned that the local native people called it Ohio. It does not follow, however, that the Frenchman's reaction was the meaning of the word Ohio. While the origin is still very cloudy, it would seem more likely that this word was a Wyandot (Iroquoian) word meaning "large, great" or, used alone, "the great one". This is based on missionary and Indian agent reports of the time. (Reference)
Oklahoma The Sooner StateOklahoma became the 46th state in the Union on November 16th, 1907. The state's name was chosen by Allen Wright, chief of the Choctaw Nation from 1866 to 1870. Wright combined two Choctaw words, ukla "person" + huma "red" to form the word that first appears in a 1866 Choctaw treaty. So, Oklahoma means "red person", a more subtly ironical memorial to the people who originally lived there than Indiana. (Reference)
Oregon The Beaver StateThe name of this state was first published by Jonathan Carver in 1778 in his book Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America. Carver took the name from the writings of Maj. Robert Rogers, an English army officer who used this proper noun in a 1765 petition to the Kingdom of Great Britain. The petition referred to Ouragon and asked for money to finance an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Where Rogers got the word remains a mystery. The most plausible explanation is that it came from an engraver's error in naming the Ouisiconsink (Wisconsin River) on a French map published in the early 1700s. In a 2004 article for the Oregon Historical Quarterly, professor Thomas Love and Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard argue that Rogers chose the word after exposure to either of the Algonquian words wauregan and olighin, both meaning "good and beautiful". Rogers is likely to have heard the terms because of his frequent encounters with Mohegans in the late 1750s. Other suggestions, such as an origin in French ouragan "hurricane" or Spanish oregano are pure speculations without any basis in fact. (Reference)
Pennsylvania The Keystone StateIn 1681, Charles II of England granted a land charter to William Penn, due to the fact that a large debt was owed to William Penn's father, Admiral William Penn. one of the largest land grants to an individual in history. That land included both present-day Delaware and Pennsylvania. The name Pennsylvania is a Latinized word made up of Penn + sylva "woods" + nia (noun suffix) or, roughly, "Penn's Woodland", named in honor of Admiral Penn. Charles II also signed land grants for New Jersey and New York. (Reference)
Rhode Island The Ocean StateThe first mention of the name Rhode Island in connection with Narragansett Bay is in a letter of Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Italian explorer, dated July 8, 1524, in which he likens an island near the mouth of Narragansett Bay to the Island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean. Verrazzano probably referred to Block Island rather than to Aquidneck but this fact was not known in England, where the name made news long before the Pilgrims came to New England. Verrazzano's letter was printed in Italian in 1556 and in English in 1582 and 1600, so that it was accessible to the early settlers before they left England. (Reference)
South Carolina The Palmetto StateIn 1629, King Charles I of England "erected into a province," all the land from Albemarle Sound on the north to the St. John's River on the south, which he directed should be called Carolina. The word Carolina is from Carolus, the Latin form of Charles. Charles I (1600-1649) was King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, from March 27, 1625 until his execution in 1649. In 1632 he also established the colony of Maryland. There was one state of Carolina until 1729 when owners of the northern part of the territory sold their interests back to the King and North Carolina became a royal colony. (See North Carolina.)
South Dakota Mount Rushmore StateNorth and South Dakota were one territory until 1889. Dakota took its name from the Dakota (or Lakota), a Sioux people who lived in the region, featured in the motion picture, Dances with Wolves. Dakota is the Sioux word for "friends" or "allies." (Reference)
Tennessee The Volunteer StateTennessee comes from the name of a native American village named Tanasqui through which Captain Juan Pardo, the Spanish explorer, and his men passed in 1567 while traveling inland from South Carolina. European settlers later encountered a Cherokee town named Tanasi in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee. It is not known whether this was the same town as the one encountered by Juan Pardo but one or both of these names were the predecessors of modern day Tennessee. Pardo said that the word had no meaning but was just a village name. (Reference )
Texas The Lone Star StateTexas comes from the word teysha "hello, friend" in Caddoan, the language of the Caddo Indian tribes. Spanish explorers and early settlers used this word to greet members of friendly tribes throughout Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. (Reference)
Utah The Beehive StateThis state's name comes from a Navajo word yuttahih "higher-ups, people who are higher". Europeans thought this term referred to a people who lived higher up in the White Mountains and when they did, in fact, encounter such a tribe, they called them "Utes". (Reference)
Vermont The Green Mountain StateVermont was adopted as the official name of the state on June 30, 1777 as part of the first Vermont constitution. Dr. Thomas Young, a Pennsylvania statesman who suggested that the Pennsylvania constitution serve as a basis for Vermont's, proposed the name Vermont to perpetuate the memory of the Green Mountain Boys. This rebel group, led by Ethan Allen, were named for the long ridge of mountains running north-south through the state. However, Vermont was first settled by the French and England gained control of the area only in 1763 after the French and Indian Wars, so the name probably originated with them. The problem with this assumption is that "green mountains" in French would be (les) monts verts not verts monts, so the phrase had been subjected to Anglicization. By whom? Probably the entire population. (Reference)
Virginia The Old Dominion StateAt the end of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), who was known as the "Virgin Queen" because she never married, gave the name Virginia to the whole area explored by the 1584 expedition of Sir Walter Raleigh along the coast of North America. The name eventually applied to the whole coast from South Carolina to Maine. (Reference)
Washington The Evergreen StateOn August 29, 1851, 27 male settlers met at Cowlitz Landing (south of present-day Olympia) to petition Congress for a Columbia Territory separate from Oregon covering the area between the Columbia River and 49th parallel. The petition was reaffirmed by 44 delegates who met in Monticello on November 25, 1852. Congress approved the new territory on February 10, 1853, but changed its name to Washington in honor of the first president of the United States, George Washington. U.S. President Millard Fillmore established Washington Territory on March 2, 1853; Washington became a state on November 11, 1889. (Reference)
West Virginia The Mountain StateAt the end of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), who was known as the "Virgin Queen" because she never married, gave the name Virginia to the whole area explored by the 1584 expedition of Sir Walter Raleigh along the coast of North America. The name eventually applied to the whole coast from South Carolina to Maine. The regions making up what is now West Virginia seceded from the state of Virginia rather than join the Confederacy and became the 35th state of the U.S. during the course of the Civil War. (Reference)
Wisconsin The Badger StateWisconsin first appears in 1673 in Fr. Jacques Marquette's journal as Mescousing and Miskous, words he thought meant "red stone" in some Algonquian language. Marquette picked this word up from the Mascouten (Miami, Kickapoo) people he had just visited. A related Algonquian people, the Mesquakie (or Fox), called themselves "Red Earth People" and may have applied the appellation to the nearby river. Modern linguists find that these primary sources do not accurately reflect what is known now about Algonquian languages and can find no word in any of those languages that resemble those in Marquette's journal. Marquette's Meskousing had become Ouisconsin by 1682 in the parlance of the explorer LaSalle and was spelled Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century after the U.S. took control of the region even though the territorial governor James Doty strongly preferred the spelling Wiskonsan. ( Reference)
Wyoming The Cowboy State The name Wyoming was adopted from the Delaware (Lenape) word chwewamink: chw- "big" + eweam- "plains" -enk "place" = "at/on the big plains" and was first used to name the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, where the Lenapes lived. Congressman J. M. Ashley of Ohio, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives in 1865 to provide a "temporary government for the territory of Wyoming," a name he apparently chose. The bill was referred to a committee where it rested until being passed in 1868. During debate on the bill in the U.S. Senate in 1868, other possible names were suggested, such as Cheyenne, Shoshoni, Arapaho, Sioux, Platte, Big Horn, Yellowstone, Sweetwater and Lincoln. Wyoming was already commonly used and remained the popular choice. (Reference)
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