Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The Origin of the Names of the US States

US FlagWell, after researching them for a month, I finally uploaded a first pass at an authoritative etymological glossary of the names of the US States. I call it a first pass because I am still finding books on the subject and former colleagues who specialize in the languages involved. However, I found some rather surprising sources for the first pass that are at odds with the informationi floating around the web in such resources as, Infoplease, and Wikipedia.

The subject came up when someone within earshot expounded on knowing the meaning of the word Mississippi “The Father of Waters”. Could be but the meaning somehow struck me as odd. So, I googled “origin state names” and came up with a formidable list of lists containing the definitions or other origins of all the states in the US. I was horrified at the mistakes I could spot even though I am not a specialist in native languages. The most appalling aspect of these lists (there must be at least 50 out there) is that they are all practically identical! The ease brought by the Web to plagiarism had taken its toll.

My introduction of the list includes this: “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 their beauty, beauty from 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.”

I have always cringed at the fact that, although I never see a native American, I bath every day in their languages. We must have absorbed every word in every native language into the nomenclature of this country. Since a major intent of our daily Good Word is to use words to pry into our history, loosen bits that enhance our understanding of ourselves, I thought that understanding how lexically dependent we are on native American words would contribute to that intent.

There are many interesting discoveries: the name Idaho seems to have been a nonsense word, Oklahoma means “red man” (can’t rid that state of all traces of its original owners), and Massachusetts, which everyone seems to think means “(people of) the big hill” more probably means “arrowhead hill”, according to the head linguists of the Smithsonian, a specialist in the now extinct Massachuset language. Anyway, take a look and let me know what you think.

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