The Literal Translation of Every State Name
Royals, homelands, and Native American words are just some of the inspirations behind state names.
What’s in a name?
The United States is built on land that was once owned by many different cultures and people. The names of our states, cities, lakes, and other beautiful landmarks from sea to shining sea have come from a multitude of different influences.
When it comes to the names of our 50 states, a great deal are from the Native people of this land and their languages. Others still were from influences across the pond and all across the world. Some names are still shrouded in mystery or even lost to time (though some are in these state facts that we bet you didn’t know). Names are often fluid and change over time, so understanding where they came from is a crucial step to understanding our history and how to make the right strides into the future.
For a long time, many believed “Alabama” meant “Here we rest” in the native Muskogee language, but that has been disproven—more or less. Linguistic scholars now believe the name comes from the Choctaw alba (meaning “plants” or “weeds”) and amo (meaning “to cut,” “to trim,” or “to gather”). In all likelihood, the state was named for its agricultural roots, in particular, vegetable farming.
The largest of the United States, Alaska’s name comes from the Aleut word, “Aleyska,” which means “great land,” according to the Government of Alaska’s website. The Aleuts have been living in the land that is now known as Alaska since about 10,000 BCE when it was physically connected to Russia via the Bering Land Bridge.
The meaning of the name “Arizona” is subject to debate. Some say it means “Place of Little Spring” (from the Native American word, “al shon”). Others believe it means “The Good Oak Tree” from the Basque word meaning the same. Both interpretations seem equally likely based on Arizona’s history. Speaking of, Arizona happens to be one of the only two states that don’t observe daylights savings time.
The word “Arkansas” came from the Quapaw Indians, by way of early French explorers, according to the Arkansas Secretary of State. It means “south wind,” a reference to the Quapaws, who were known as “people who live downstream.”
The name “California” means “the land ruled by Califa.” The name came about through a combination of mistake and mythology: the first Spanish explorers to discover the land believed it to be an island. So 16th-century mapmakers gave it the romantic name, California, in honor of the book, Las Sergas de Esplandián, by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, a tale about California, a mythical island ruled by Queen Califa. Test your mettle to see if you’re more geographically savvy than those first Spanish explorers.
The meaning of the name “Colorado” derives from the Spanish phrase for “colored red.” There is some debate over where that phrase came from; some say it refers to the red silt of the Colorado River from which the state is thought to have gotten its name. Others point out that the Colorado River was known as the Grand River until 1921 long after Colorado became a state in 1876. Their theory is that the state took its name from Colorado City (now Colorado Springs), which is situated close to the state’s famed red rocks.
The name “Delaware” is a tribute to the very first governor of Virginia, Thomas West, the Lord De La Warr. In 1610, the explorer Samuel Argall named the body of water that is now the Delaware River for Governor De La Warr, and the state later got its name from the river.
Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first landed on what would become the Sunshine State in the spring of 1513. He named the area “Pascua Florida,” literally “Feast of Flowers,” a Spanish holiday related to Easter. Today, April 2 is celebrated as Pascua Florida Day to commemorate de Leon’s landing. From flowers to birds to spectacular architecture, don’t miss these secret gems in each state.
Georgia was named for King George II, who granted the charter to establish the colony in 1732. Georgia is the name “George” with the Greek suffix “ia” that means “state of” tacked onto the end.
There are almost as many suggested meanings behind the word “Hawaii” as there are islands of Hawaii. Here are a few of the top explanations: It’s the name of the first settler there, Hawaii Loa; it’s the Polynesian word for their homeland; it’s derived from “Hawaiki,” the Maori word for homeland, and/or it is a contraction of two words, “hawa” (meaning homeland) and “ii” (meaning small and raging). Today, these Hawaiian words and phrases hold the secret to Zen.
The name “Idaho” has no translation at all because it’s entirely made up. In an early form of marketing that would make these modern-day businesses proud, the name was suggested by a local leader in 1860 who claimed the word “Idaho” was a Native American word for “gem of the mountains.” Later that same year, gold was discovered in the Clearwater area, proving his invented name wasn’t far off base. Make sure to study the history of the land you live in with these facts about Native Americans you didn’t learn in school.
The name “Illinois” comes from the word the French used to refer to the “Illiniwek” people, a large group of Native American tribes that all shared similar cultures and the land we now call Illinois. It has been suggested the name itself means either “the men” or “he who speaks in the ordinary way.” Can you guess the one letter that’s not in ANY state name? Hint: It’s not I, L, N, O, or S!
The name Indiana means “land of the Indian.” The state capitol, “Indianapolis,” uses the Greek suffix, “polis,” meaning “city of.” Indiana became a state in 1816.
Some believe the name “Iowa” means “beautiful place” in the ancient language of the Aborigines. But it is more likely to have come from the Sauk and Fox tribe word “kiowa,” which means “This is the place” or “crossing or going over.” In the 1830s Black Hawk, a Sauk leader, led his tribes across the Mississippi River near Davenport, and is said to have named it “Kiowa.” The “K” was later dropped by European settlers. If you’re interested in what’s happening in Iowa in 2020, checkout its Nicest Places entry.
The Bluegrass State is another that has a name with origins in a Native American language, though there is debate as to which one. Some think it derived from the Wyandot name for the area, “Kah-ten-tah-teh,” roughly translated as “Land of Tomorrow.” Others think it came from the Shawnee name for the area, “Kain-tuck-ee,” which means “At the Head of the River.” It’s also possible it comes from the Iroquoian or Mohawk word “Kentucke,” meaning “among the meadows.”
The name “Maine” first appeared in writing in 1622 in the charter granting the land on which it sits to Sir Ferdinando Gorges. Other names suggested were Laconia and New Somerset, but in 1639, King Charles I let it be known that he did not care for the latter. So, according to various theories, Maine won out for one of these reasons: Sir Gorges’ family was from a village in England called Broadmayne, there may have been a small coastal village in England called Maine, or it may simply be a shortening of the term “mainland” as Maine has numerous islands.
The name “Massachusetts” is the name of the Native American tribe who populated the land that is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the Massachusetts language, the name means “people of the great hills,” a reference to the “Great Blue Hill” in Milton, which was once an active volcano.
Like 27 other states in the Union, Minnesota takes its name from a Native American word or phrase. In this case, it comes from the Dakota word for “sky-tinted water” or “cloudy water,” no doubt in reference to the mighty Mississippi which bisects the state.
Missouri may mean “muddy waters” (presumably of the Mississippi) or “town of the large canoes,” in the language of the native Sioux tribe, per the Secretary of State of the State of Missouri.
The name “Montana” is derived from “montaña” the Spanish word for mountain or mountainous region. Fun fact: Despite its name, Montana has an average elevation of under 3,500 feet. But Montana’s mountains are prominent to its topography; its Western portion is dominated by the Rockies, and the state features over 50 mountain ranges.
OK, let’s just get this out of the way first: the proper way to pronounce this state is Nev-AD-a (where the “Va” rhymes with “and”), and here’s how to pronounce the hardest town names in each state. But what’s weird about this hard-to-pronounce state is that since the name comes from “nieve” the Spanish word for “snow-capped,” you’d think it would be pronounced in the Spanish way, Nay-VAH-dah.
New Hampshire was chartered to Captain John Mason at the same time Maine was granted to Sir Gorges in the 1620s. The area had originally been dubbed “North Virginia;” King James later changed that to New England, which was narrowed down further to New Hampshire, in honor of Hampshire, the English county where Mason hailed from. Interesting note: Captian Mason died before ever setting foot in the New World.
Like New Hampshire, New Jersey was named after a place in England, the Isle of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. After England took control of the area from the Netherlands in 1664, it was divided into two parts; Sir George Carteret, who was granted the eastern half hailed, from the original Jersey. Here are more European islands you probably never even heard of, let alone though to visit.
Funny thing about New Mexico: it’s named after the country we know as Mexico, but it turns out the country isn’t really called “Mexico.” Its real name is “The United Mexican States” and has been ever since the nation gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Many historians believe the word, Mexico, itself, derives from the Nahuatl tribe’s word for “place of the Mexica,” the Mexica being a nomadic Aztec-based people.
Many people believe the “York” in New York refers to a town in England (whether York or Yorkshire). However, it’s more accurate to say “York” refers to King James II of England, who as the second-born son of King Charles I was designated Duke of York. (Confused? Here’s how the royals get their titles.) King Charles II, James’s older brother who ruled England in 1664 when the colony was taken over by the British from the Netherlands in 1664, named the new colony after James, Duke of York.
Carolina, although associated with female names nowadays, was derived from the name “Carolus,” which translated as “Charles.” That should give you a big hint as to who the state was named for: Charles I who granted the territory to his attorney general Robert Heath in 1629.
In the Sioux language (the Sioux tribe was indigenous to the land that became the Dakotas), the word for “friend” is “dakota.” Until 1861, the land that is now North Dakota had been part of the Minnesota and Nebraska Territories. After having been bought in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, North Dakota became a state in 1889 on the same day as South Dakota.
“Oregon” is thought to come from the French Canadian word, “ouragan.” It means “hurricane” and may refer to the weather conditions faced by Canadian fur trappers, although the spelling is closer to the Spanish word, “orégano,” the spice, which grows in parts of Oregon.
Pennsylvania is named for William Penn, who received the charter from King Charles II as a settlement of a debt the crown owed his father. The “sylvania”-suffix is Latin for “wooded area” or “forest” and describes what the land looked like before it was settled. While Pennsylvania is a historically rich city, these other cities have landmarks that almost didn’t exist.
Explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano named the area Rhode Island because when he first saw it in 1524, it reminded him of the Greek island of Rhodes. People liked the name, and it stuck.
For the meaning of the word “dakota,” see “North Dakota” above. Those with loyalty to South Dakota will claim that South Dakota was admitted to the United States before North Dakota, but apparently, President Benjamin Harrison didn’t pay attention to which state he signed into existence first on November 2, 1889.
Like the Dakotas, Texas was named with friendship in mind. Texas is a variant of a word (Teysha) used by some Native Americans to refer to friends or allies. It has many different spellings, including “Texias,” “Tejas,” and “Teysas.”
If Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormons who is credited with settling the area, had his way, the state would be called “Deseret” and it would have been much larger, stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, as a result of the Compromise of 1850, the Territory of Utah, named after the indigenous Ute tribes, was formed. Utah became a state in 1896.
The name “Vermont” is a contraction of the French words for green (verd) and mountain (mont). Vermont was settled by the French, and it’s known for its “green mountains.”
Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” It’s thought that Sir Walter Raleigh suggested the name to the Queen in 1584 when she gave Raleigh permission to colonize the land. Virginia has a great number of attractions and history, check out what these landmarks look like zoomed out.
Washington State is named after the first president of the United States, George Washington. The name Washington itself may be Olde English for a settlement (“tun”) created by victors (“wassa”).
Originally part of Virginia, West Virginia was named in honor of Queen Elizabeth. The “West” was added when it separated from Virginia as its residents did not want to secede from the Union during the Civil War. It became a state in 1863.
The Wisconsin Historical Society claims that the name Wisconsin (or, “Meskongsing” as it was called before the English changed the French version of the original Native American word), means “river running through a red place” in the language of the Miami tribe of Indians. However, others claim it translates to “grassy place” in the Chippewa language.
As with many states, Wyoming’s name was inspired by the Native American language; “Mechewami-ing,” which means “the great plain” in the language of the Delaware Tribe. Other options considered were Cheyenne, Big Horn, Yellowstone, Sioux, and Lincoln. But you know what we’d rather think about right about now? The best ice cream in Wyoming…and every state.