In a Word: The Surprising Story Behind Every State’s Name

The sources of our 50 state names are as varied and interesting as the people who live in them.


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An exploration of the history behind the names of our 50 states spans a wide variety of languages across multiple centuries. While the original meaning and intent of some are well known and straightforward, an astonishing number of state name histories are disputed, and some of the stories behind them might surprise you. For example, do you know which state’s name was pulled from a work of fiction? Or which state could have been New Wales? Or which state was named for a river that didn’t even flow through it?

Read on to find out.

The State of Alabama

Year of statehood: 1819
Denizen name: Alabamian or (less popular) Alabaman

In the early 16th century, while Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was making his way across the New World, he met a native tribe, a subdivision of the Creek, called the Alabama — or something like it. As later explorers chronicled their journeys through the area, the tribe’s name was spelled a number of different ways, including Albama, Alibamon, Alibamou, and Alabamu. De Soto’s own chroniclers couldn’t even agree on the spelling, with one writing Alibamo, a second Alibamu, and third Limamu.

Like many other names on this list, the Alabama tribe name was applied to a river, then to the territory, and finally to the state.

A story circulated in the mid-1800s that the word Alabama translates to “here we rest,” but scholars have been unable to find any proof of that. Modern historians and etymologists believe the name derives from a Choctaw word meaning “plant cutters” or “thicket clearers” — meaning that the tribe harvested food from the land.

The State of Alaska

Year of statehood: 1959
Denizen name: Alaskan

The name Alaska is believed to come from the Aleut word aláxsxaq or aleyska (or any of other numerous spellings), which is translated as “an object to which the sea is directed.” A bit odd, yes, but the name might have stuck because of a misunderstanding.

George R. Stewart, author of American Place-names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary for the Continental United States of America, writes that, when Russian America was purchased in 1867,  the name Alaska was suggested by Senator Charles Sumner and others under the belief that it meant “great land,” when in fact the word is just what Aleuts, an island people, used to refer to the mainland. (It wouldn’t be the only state name with this kind of story, as you’ll see with Maine.) The “great land” translation is what you’ll find on the official Alaska state website, but that may just be the same wishful thinking Charles Sumner exhibited a century and a half ago.

The State of Arizona

Year of statehood: 1912
Denizen name: Arizonan

There are two stories behind the name Arizona. The more likely and more widely accepted is that it comes from an O’odham place name that means “place of the small spring,” originally spelled Arizonac and later shortened to take the form of a Spanish word. That name for a specific location (which is south of the border, in Mexico) spread after rich deposits of silver were found there.

The second argument for Arizona’s etymology is that it comes from a Basque word that means “the good oak tree.” This argument is backed by the fact that there are places in Central and South America called Arizona — such as the village in central Argentina — where Spanish and Basque people settled but O’odham speakers did not.

The State of Arkansas

Year of statehood: 1836
Denizen name: Arkansan, though some argue for Arkansawyer

French explorers first noted a village and tribe with the name Arkansa in 1673 — they added the -s to make it plural to indicate members of the tribe. It’s believed to be what Algonquian-speaking natives in the Ohio Valley called the Quapaws, who lived west of the Mississippi. The word means “south wind.”

Article clipping
An excerpt from the Congressional statute establishing the territory of Arkansaw, March 2, 1819.

The name was later applied to the territory, though the spelling was far from set. In English, the tribe was called the Arkansea, but when Americans took over the area in the early 1800s, they called it Arkansaw to hold to the French pronunciation. Arkansaw is the spelling on the Act that created the territory in 1819, and you’ll find it so spelled in early issues of The Saturday Evening Post as well. The spelling was later officially changed.

The State of California

Year of statehood: 1850
Denizen name: Californian

The first known appearance of the place name California appears in a work of fiction, a long early-16th-century romantic poem by Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo called “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (The Exploits of Espladán). The story was a sequel to “Amadis de Gaula,” the approximate equivalent to the Spanish of the story of King Arthur to the English, so it was fairly well known. Montalvo coined the name — perhaps influenced by the word caliph, the names of Spanish cities like Calahorra, or the name Califerne in the Song of Roland — for a fictional island in the ocean that was rich in gold and gems and populated by Amazon-like women.

When Hernán Cortés and his men first saw the southern tip of modern Baja California in the 1520s, they thought it was an island, and Cortés bestowed upon it the name California, though there’s some evidence he may have done so mockingly. Two decades later, as Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo explored northward, he brought the name with him.

The California on the now-American side was for a time called Alta California (Upper California), but the Alta was dropped when the land was surrendered to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

The State of Colorado

Year of statehood: 1876
Denizen name: Coloradan

This Spanish word meaning “colored, reddish” generally indicates a subtler or duller shade of red than the more common rojo. The name was first applied around 1602 to a stream that was murky and red with silt; that stream is today called the Little Colorado. The name over time worked itself up the stream to the larger Colorado River.

When the territory was organized in 1861, a number of names were suggested, including Colona, Jefferson, Osage, and Idaho, but Congress chose Colorado on the grounds that it contained the Colorado River’s source. While that was true geologically, it wasn’t, at the time, geographically accurate. When Colorado became a state, the Colorado River officially began in Utah, at the junction of Wyoming’s Green River and Colorado’s Grand River. The Colorado River didn’t flow through its namesake state until 1922, when, urged by some Colorado legislators, Congress passed the Colorado River Compact, which, in part, declared and renamed the Grand River as part of the Colorado River.

The State of Connecticut

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: Nutmegger (though the U.S. Government Publishing Office prefers Connecticuter)

First applied to settlements along the Connecticut River, Connecticut is from the Algonquian word Quinnehtukqut, which means “place beside the long tidal river.” The second, silent c in the name was probably inserted into the word by an English scribe to form the more common connect.

The State of Delaware

Year of statehood: 1787
Denizen name: Delawarean

The first colonial governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, lived in the colony for less than a year during 1610-11, but in that time, Samuel Argoll found and named a cape after him, calling it Lawar. It later became Delaware and was used for the bay and the river and eventually the state. The natives who lived in the vicinity also came to be called the Delaware.

The State of Florida

Year of statehood: 1845
Denizen name: Floridian

Bestowed upon the land by Juan Ponce de Léon in 1513, the name Florida is Spanish for “flowered, flowery.” It’s possible that the lands he saw were actually quite lush and colorful, but it’s more likely that he chose the name because he landed during Easter season, which in Spain is called Pasqua florida, “the feast of flowers.”

The State of Georgia

Portrait of King George II, sitting on a chair.
King George II, in a 1744 portrait by Thomas Hudson (Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: Georgian

Georgia was named for King George II of England in 1732, taking the Latinized form for a place name. He signed the charter for the colony’s creation.

The State of Hawaii

Year of statehood: 1959
Denizen name: Because the adjective Hawaiian can connote membership in a specific ethnic group, the U.S. Government Publishing Office recommends “Hawaii resident” for citizens of the state

When James Cook caught sight of this Pacific paradise in 1778, he named the archipelago the Sandwich Islands, after the Earl of Sandwich. But when King Kamehameha united the islands in 1810, they became the Kingdom of Hawaii — or something similar. The local language at the time existed only as an oral language until American missionaries arrived in 1820 and began “creating” a written version, based on what they heard. Some earlier visitors had transcribed the word as Owyhee, which may be a closer to the word’s original pronunciation; it’s also the source of the name of Owyhee County, Idaho.

Hawaii may be named after Hawai’iloa, who, according to legend, first discovered and helped populate the island. It might also be a combination, meaning “small or new homeland,” of the words Hawa “traditional homeland” and ii “small and raging.” It’s also said to mean “Place of the Gods.”

The State of Idaho

Year of statehood: 1890
Denizen name: Idahoan

The name Idaho first appeared in an area now part of Colorado. It may be derived from the word Idahi, the Kiowa-Apache name for the Comanche, both of whom were known to have been in that area. It also might have been concocted by a mining lobbyist at a time when native-sounding names were popular, and therefore resembles an actual native word only by coincidence.

When Colorado was being organized as a territory in 1860, Idaho was a strong contender for its name, but Congress chose Colorado. The name turned up again in 1863 when territories farther north were being organized. Montana was first proposed for the new area, but the U.S. Senate decided to call it Idaho.

The State of Illinois

Year of statehood: 1818
Denizen name: Illinoisan (the s remains unpronounced)

Illinois comes from the French spelling of the native word iliniwok, to which was added an -s to indicate the plural. The word simply means “men” and was applied to tribes in the area. Like for many state names, the tribal name was applied to a river, then to a district, then to the territory, and finally to the state.

The State of Indiana

Year of statehood: 1816
Denizen name: Hoosier

The neo-Latin adjective meaning “land of Indians” was adopted by the Indiana Company, a mid-18th-century group of land developers who called their tract Indiana. When the territory was organized in 1800, the area was “Indian territory,” so the name was fitting.

The State of Iowa

Year of statehood: 1846
Denizen name: Iowan, Iowegian

The French recorded Ouaouiatonon as the name of a tribe near the current Iowa River in 1673. This was eventually shortened to the voweliscious Ouaouia, which became the tribal name Iowa and, following the common linguistic route, was applied to a river, then the territory, then the state. The word is said ultimately to trace back to the Dakota word ayuxba, meaning “sleepy ones,” which I’m sure modern Iowans just love.

The State of Kansas

Year of statehood: 1861
Denizen name: Kansan

At the start of the 17th century, Spanish explorers knew of a tribe called Escansaque; by 1673, the French were calling them the Kansas, with the -s added to signify the plural. This name, like others, was then applied to a river, to the territory, and finally to the state.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky

Year of statehood: 1792
Denizen name: Kentuckian

This name is probably from an Iroquois word meaning “meadowland.” The name — as well as the eventual state — began as a county in Virginia in 1776.

The State of Louisiana

King Louis XIV
An engraved portrait of Louis XIV by Robert Nanteuil, 1670. (Wikimedia Commons)

Year of statehood: 1812
Denizen name: Louisianian

Louisiana was first named Louisiane in 1681 by Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, in honor of King Louis XIV of France. When the Spanish took over the area, they kept the name but respelled it in a Spanish way: Luisiana. When the United States bought the land, we split the difference between the two.

The State of Maine

Year of statehood: 1820
Denizen name: Mainer

French explorers might have simply named this area Maine after the region in France called Maine, which itself is named after a river. But George Stewart, author of American Place-Names, offers some proof of another provenance:

When 17th-century explorers reached what would become America’s northeast coast, they found many islands, which led to common use of the main or the maine to refer to the mainland, as opposed to the islands. A 1620 charter refers to “the country of the Main Land,” suggesting it was meant as a descriptive term and not a place name, but it stuck.

Modern-day Maine was part of Massachusetts before it became a state, and though Maine wasn’t used as the name for a political entity for a long time, it was used by the locals and seemed the popular choice for the state name.

The State of Maryland

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: Marylander

According to the charter received by Cecil Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore (and namesake of the state’s largest city), King Charles I of England specified that the colony be named in honor of his wife Queen Henrietta Maria — commonly known as Queen Mary. Considering that Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics, the connection to the Virgin Mary was probably pretty influential in his choice, too, even though Charles was himself a Protestant.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: Bay Stater is the most common; the U.S. Government Publishing Office recommends Massachusettsan, a word which every Bay Stater I asked claimed they had neither used nor been called

From an Algonquian word meaning “large hill place,” Massachusett was first recorded in 1616 as the name of a village near the site of current-day Boston. The English added an -s to signify the plural and used it as a tribal name. It was then applied to the bay, from which the Massachusetts Bay Company, founded in 1629, took its name. With the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, legislators adopted the name Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The State of Michigan

Year of statehood: 1837
Denizen name: Officially Michiganian, but more popularly Michigander

Michigan comes from an Algonquian word that means “big lake.” Lake Michigan, then, is one of those opaquely redundant geographical names like “Mississippi River” and “La Brea Tar Pits”; it literally means “Lake Big Lake.” The territory (and then state) was named after its chief geological feature, that big body of water to its west.

The State of Minnesota

Year of statehood: 1858
Denizen name: Minnesotan

Minnesota comes from a Dakota word Mnisota, which, depending on one’s pronunciation and interpretation, means “cloudy water,” “sky-tinted waters,” or “waters that reflect the sky.” The word was applied to what is today called the Minnesota River.

In a strange twist, when French explorers arrived in the area, they renamed the river after Saint Peter, so there was no Minnesota River when the Minnesota territory was being organized in 1847. Still, the old name was revived for the territory and, later, the state. In 1852, Congress restored the old name to the Minnesota River as well.

The State of Mississippi

Year of statehood: 1817
Denizen name: Mississippian

French explorers in 1666 recorded Messipi as the name of the river after which the state is named. The word comes from one of the Algonquian languages of the Great Lakes region and means “big river” … which is why some language snoots like to say that the phrase “Mississippi River,” like “Rio Grande River,” is redundant.

The State of Missouri

Year of statehood: 1821
Denizen name: Missourian

From an Algonquian name for a tribe living at the mouth of what is now the Missouri River, Missouri means “canoe-haver.” The name followed the same route as other state names: from the tribe to the river to a district near the river to the territory to the state.

The State of Montana

Year of statehood: 1889
Denizen name: Montanan

The name Montana was first given in 1858 to a town in the Pike’s Peak gold region, which was at the time part of Kansas and is today part of Colorado. The town eventually died, though, when the gold ran out. Some believed the word was taken from the Spanish word for “mountain” (montaña); others believed it came from Latin for “mountainous” (montanus). Regardless, its vague suggestion of mountains was appealing.

The name reached Rep. James M. Ashley of Ohio, who was a member of the House Committee on Territories. He recommended it in 1863 for the territory that would become Idaho. He liked the name so much that he recommended it again for a territory being organized in 1864, despite the fact that it lay mostly in the plains.

And that’s where the name stuck.

The State of Nebraska

Year of statehood: 1867
Denizen name: Nebraskan

Sioux tribes called what we now know as the Platte River either ni braska (Omaha) or ni brathge (Oto). Both of them literally mean “water flat,” referring to a river that spreads out widely, as opposed to one that falls between high banks. According to George Stewart’s American Place-Names, explorer and politician J.C. Frémont, one of the first to use the current spelling, suggested in 1844 that it would be a good name for a territory, but it wouldn’t be used as such until 1854.

So why do we call it the Platte River instead of the Nebraska River? When French explorers came through the area, they translated the Siouan word directly into French: rivière plate means “flat river.”

The State of Nevada

Sierra Nevada range
The Sierra Nevada, Spanish for “snowy mountain range.” (Shutterstock)

Year of statehood: 1864
Denizen name: Nevadan

Nevada is a Spanish word for “snowy” or “snow-covered,” and was often applied to white-topped mountains seen from a distance. Spanish sailors along the Pacific coast, for example, noted the beautiful sierra nevada, literally “snowy mountain range,” that they could see from their ships. This was originally just a generic term, but by 1776 it was applied specifically to the Sierra Nevada range we know today.

After the range came Nevada County and Nevada City — both in California — and then the name of the territory that was carved out of the western Utah territory in 1861, and finally the state.

The State of New Hampshire

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: New Hampshirite

In 1623, Captain John Mason received a land grant from the Council for New England. He named the area New Hampshire, in honor Hampshire, his home county back in England.

Hampshire, England, began as a settlement in the Middle Ages called Hamtun. Ham and tun can both be translated as “village, manor, estate,” and Hamtun’s similarity to the word hometown isn’t just coincidental. Hamtun gave its name to the larger area, and the Old English -scir (modern –shire) “administrative office, district” was tacked on to the end. Over the years, through natural shortening and perhaps some mangling by Norman scribes, Hamtunscir became Hampshire. The site of the original Hamtun is now Southampton, Hampshire’s largest city.

John Mason spent a lot of his own money to clear land and finance settlements in New Hampshire, but he died in 1635 while preparing for his first voyage to the colony. The man who created New Hampshire never set foot in it.

The State of New Jersey

Year of statehood: 1787
Denizen name: New Jerseyan

In 1664, Sir John Berkley and Sir George Carteret received a royal charter for a new colony, which they named New Jersey, after the island in the English Channel where Carteret was born and had served as lieutenant governor.

The source of the name Jersey is unclear. Some believe that it comes from a corruption of the Roman name for the island, Caesarea, but it might also be of Viking origin, meaning something like “Geirr’s Island.” The name of the cow, the cloth, and the article of clothing all derive from the name of the island, not the state.

The State of New Mexico

Year of statehood: 1912
Denizen name: New Mexican

The country we know as Mexico was still called New Spain when Francisco de Ibarra started using the name Nuevo México in 1562. México at the time referred to the Valley of Mexico, around present-day Mexico City, and Ibarra referred to a region north of there as Nuevo Mexico, implying (or perhaps hoping) that the area would be as rich as the original Mexico.

The name worked its way northward and became well established as the name of the region along the northern Rio Grande. In 1848, the United States took possession of the area and simply recast it as New Mexico.

The State of New York

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: New Yorker

Named not directly for the city of York in England, but for the Duke of York. The area was settled by the Dutch, who called the larger colony New Netherlands and the city New Amsterdam. The British took over the area in the mid-1600s, and in 1664, King Charles II issued a charter granting the colony to and naming it after his brother James, the Duke of York.

After Charles II’s death, James ascended to the throne as King James II of England and Ireland and King James VII of Scotland.

The State of North Carolina

Year of statehood: 1789
Denizen name: Officially North Carolinian, colloquially Tar Heel

To simply say that the Carolinas were named after King Charles of England would be an oversimplification. The first Charles referenced in a local name wasn’t even British: early French colonists named the area la Caroline, in honor of France’s King Charles IX, in 1564. But the British soon took control of the area, and in 1629, Robert Heath received a land grant from the king, and Heath requested that the colony be named after that monarch, King Charles I. It was given the name Carolana, an adjective based on Carolus, Latin for “Charles.”

However, in 1663, King Charles II regranted the land to eight proprietors and changed the name to Carolina, claiming the name for both himself and his father, the original land grant signer. The Carolinas, therefore, are named after both Charles I and Charles II of England … and a little bit after Charles IX of France.

In 1710, after years of squabbling and mismanagement by the argumentative proprietors, Edward Hyde was appointed governor of North Carolina instead of all of Carolina, though the North/South separation of the colony wasn’t official until 1729.

The State of North Dakota

Year of statehood: 1889
Denizen name: North Dakotan

Dakota is a name for the tribe more commonly called the Sioux, and it’s the Sioux word for “friends” or “allies.” When the Dakota territory was split in 1889, both areas tried to claim the name Dakota — the North/South division was a compromise. They were both granted statehood that same year; in fact, North and South Dakota are the only two states to be admitted to the Union on the same day: November 2, 1889.

The State of Ohio

Year of statehood: 1803
Denizen name: Ohioan

In Iroquoisan, -io is a vague term of commendation, meaning, roughly, “fine, good, or beautiful.” Ohio is what the Iroquois called parts of the Ohio River and Allegheny River, and it means “beautiful river” or “large river.” The state was then named after the river.

The State of Oklahoma

Photo portrait of Allen Wright
Born Kilihote in 1826, Allen Wright became Principal Chief of the Choctaw Tribe and a Presbyterian minister. (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Year of statehood: 1907
Denizen name: Oklahoman, Sooner, or Okie

Allen Wright was a Choctaw chief and Presbyterian minister who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. He is credited with coining the name Oklahoma in 1866 by combining two Choctaw words that, together, mean “Land of the Red People.” In 1866, and the name was adopted into the Choctaw-Chickasee Treaty.

The State of Oregon

Year of statehood: 1859
Denizen name: Oregonian

No one is certain where this state name came from, but there are a number of theories. Some researchers believe that French Canadian traders once called the Columbia River the riviére ouragan “river of storms,” which was then applied to the area around it.

Another suggestion is that it came from the Spanish orejon “big-ear,” which Spanish traders and settlers applied to native tribes in the area.

Still a third is that the land was named for the Spanish word for the wild sage that proliferated in eastern Oregon. You guessed it: orégano.

George Stewart, author of American Place-Names, offers another alternative that he first presented in 1944: He believes the name was the result of a careless French engraver. According to Stewart, the French usually spelled the name of the Wisconsin River Ouisconsink, but a specific engraver in 1715, perhaps because of bad penmanship, spelled it Ouariconsint. And because he had to cram such a long word into such a limited space, he put the -sint part of the word down on a second line, leaving a casual viewer to believe the river was called Ouaricon. This, Stewart says, appeared on later documents that referred to a great river that flowed into the Pacific as Ouragon, Ourgan, and Ourigan. The spelling Oregon first appeared in 1778 in the work of Jonathan Carver.

Oregon was originally applied to the Columbia River, and then to the surrounding area, the territory, and the state.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Year of statehood: 1787
Denizen name: Pennsylvanian

England’s Charles II gave a land grant to William Penn in 1681, and the charter designated that the colony was to be called Pennsylvania, from a combination of Penn’s name and the Latin silva (more often sylva in the 17th century), meaning “forest.” Pennsylvania, therefore, means “Penn’s forest.”

However, William Penn didn’t want to be so obtuse as to have his own colony named after him. He had originally suggested the land be called New Wales, and after the charter was signed, with Pennsylvania permanently inscribed, he declared that the name was in honor of his father. He also pointed out that pen also meant “headland” in Welsh, so Pennsylvania could also be considered to mean “headland forest.”

The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations

Year of statehood: 1790
Denizen name: Rhode Islander

There are two possible sources of the Rhode in Rhode Island, and it’s likely that each source influenced the final spelling. In the first version of the story, Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano is said to have passed through the area in 1524, spotted what is now Block Island, and compared it in size and shape to the Isle of Rhodes — a Greek island just southwest of Turkey.

In the second story, when Dutch explorer Adriaen Block found the same island around 1614, he noticed its red cliffs and called it, in his tongue, Roodt Eylandt “red island.”

The Dutch source seems the most likely. However, in 1644, the Court of Providence Plantation ordered “that the island commonly called Aquethneck [Aquidneck today], shall be from henceforth called the Isle of Rhodes, or Rhode Island.” This seems like a direct link between the name of the future 13th state and the Mediterranean Island. However, such place naming by fiat was uncommon at the time, and it here stemmed from ongoing squabbles between Dutch and English settlers. It’s possible the Court knew of the Dutch name and decided to thumb their nose at it by choosing something similar but with a decidedly un-Dutch source.

The State of South Carolina

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: South Carolinian

See the entry for the State of North Carolina to learn of the trio of Charleses who contributed the Latinized version of their name for this state. It’s worth noting, too, that South Carolina’s largest city, Charleston, was originally Charles Town, also named after King Charles II — and the dance called the Charleston is named after the city.

The State of South Dakota

Year of statehood: 1889
Denizen name: South Dakotan

See the entry for the State of North Dakota for the history of this state’s name.

The State of Tennessee

Year of statehood: 1796
Denizen name: Tennessean

This state name originally comes from a Cherokee town that the Spanish called Tanasqui and the English called Tinnase. Apparently, it was just the name of the town — the Cherokee didn’t associate any literal meaning to the word. The name was transferred to a stream near the town, and as English settlers moved downstream, along the river also commonly known as the Cherokee River, they carried the name with them.

Tennessee first appeared in that spelling as the name of a newly organize county in North Carolina in 1788, and it was proposed and accepted by Congress as a state name in 1796.

The State of Texas

Year of statehood: 1845
Denizen name: Texan

Some tribes are recorded in 16th-century Spanish records as the Tejas or Texas, originally pronounced “ta-shas.” This comes from the Caddo word taysha “friends, allies,” made plural in Spanish to indicate the people. Texas (Tejas) became an official designation under Spain, and it stayed in force through Mexican independence, the 10 years of the independent Republic of Texas, and statehood. Unusually, Texas went straight from annexation to statehood and was never a U.S. territory.

The State of Utah

State seal of Utah
The Great Seal of the State of Utah. (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Year of statehood: 1896
Denizen name: Utahn

Utah is named for a native tribe from the area. Today, they’re most often known as the Utes, though in earlier times the name was spelled Uta and Utah. These all might be Anglicized versions of Yuta, the name the Spanish had given the tribe. J.C. Frémont used the spelling Utah not only for the tribe, but for present Utah Lake and the river, now the Jordan, that flows from it.

In 1849, a large group of Mormons, led by Brigham Young, petitioned the U.S. government to join the Union as the State of Deseret, a word that, according to the Book of Mormon, means “honeybee” in the language of the Jaredites. The area outlined for this new state was much larger than present-day Utah, encompassing all of Nevada, eastern and extreme southern California, more than half of Arizona, and small chunks of New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming. Congress wasn’t comfortable giving control of such large amounts of land to a young religious group, and so denied their requests numerous times. When Congress did approve of statehood in 1896, they chose the name Utah instead of the religiously sourced Deseret.

Deseret didn’t disappear, though. The Great Seal of the State of Utah, which also appears on its staet flag, features a beehive (remember that Deseret means “honeybee”), and The Deseret News — first printed in 1850 — is still one of Salt Lake City’s most widely read newspapers.

The State of Vermont

Year of statehood: 1791
Denizen name: Vermonter

It’s commonly understood that Vermont comes from the French words meaning “green mountain,” but the spelling makes that explanation less than ideal: The correct French form for “green mountain” should be mont vert, not vert mont. The name in its current spelling was suggested by Dr. Thomas Young in 1777. He likely knew some French, and it’s unclear whether he chose to invert the words and drop a letter intentionally or out of ignorance. Regardless, the name stuck.

The range that runs through Vermont was known as the Green Mountains long before 1777, so it’s possible — likely even — that the name Vermont was influenced by the French language but not actually coined by French speakers.

The Commonwealth of Virginia

Year of statehood: 1788
Denizen name: Virginian

Virginia was named after Elizabeth I, known as “the Virgin Queen” because she remained unmarried. Elizabeth had a number of other epithets that might have been used — including Gloriana (“the glorious”) and Good Queen Bess — and the choice of Virginia might have been influenced by the idea of “the virgin lands” that the English were colonizing.

The State of Washington

Year of statehood: 1889
Denizen name: Washingtonian

The territory of Washington was named in 1853 in honor of — no surprise here — George Washington. There were many objections at the time against continuing use of the first president’s name in place names, as it was so common and widely used. It’s still the most common place name in the United States today. Thirty-one of the 50 states contain a Washington County (though it’s Washington Parish in Louisiana), and in New Jersey alone there are seven Washington Townships.

And no, there’s no Washington County in the State of Washington.

The Washington family name derives from Old English for the name of a town in northeastern England that literally means “estate of a man named Wassa.”

The State of West Virginia

Year of statehood: 1863
Denizen name: West Virginian

West Virginia was originally part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and so derives its name from the same origin. It is one of only two states (Nevada is the other) to be admitted to the Union during the Civil War, and it’s the only state to secede from the Confederate States of America.

The State of Wisconsin

Year of statehood: 1848
Denizen name: Wisconsinite

French explorers recorded the name that early native tribes called the present-day Wisconsin River as Ouisconsin or Ouisconsing. What exactly the word means is still debated, with interpretations ranging from “grassy place” to  “it lies red.” The name of the river, respelled, passed on to the territory and then to the state.

The State of Wyoming

Year of statehood: 1890
Denizen name: Wyomingite

From the Algonquian word meche-weami-ing “at the big flats,” the name Wyoming was first applied to a valley in Pennsylvania. The name became well-known from Thomas Campbell’s epic 1809 poem “Gertrude of Wyoming,” which of course was a reference to a girl from Pennsylvania — it’s likely that the first American to set foot in present-day Wyoming reached it in only 1807.

James Ashley of Ohio, a member of the House Committee on Territories, suggested the name for a new territory in 1868 — and “at the big flats” was fitting, too, considering the territory was largely in the plains. There was opposition to giving a western territory such an eastern name, but, in the end, they couldn’t come up with a more suitable local name.

A Quick Tally

  • States named after an indigenous tribe or tribes: 8 (including Indiana)
  • States named after a river: 7
  • States named after a river that was named after a tribe: 4
  • States named after another local geological feature: 5
  • States named for a location in another country: 3
  • States that could have been named either for a local geological feature or a place in another country: 2
  • States named for a monarch: 6
  • States named in honor of a person who was not a monarch: 5
  • States named for a native word for a town or other area: 4
  • States named for a holiday (probably): 1
  • States whose name was coined just for the purpose: 1
  • States named after a fictional place: 1
  • State name histories that are too disputed to easily categorize: 3

Featured image: Shutterstock.

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  1. Erik Burro: Thank you. I was so focused on the state that I let this city faux pas slip through. It’s fixed now.

    Don Clemons and Georgia Sheer: Thanks. That typo has been corrected.

  2. Delightful.
    However, Baltimore is not the capitol of Maryland, Annapolis has that distinction. On the other hand, Baltimore is Maryland’s principal city of capital and economic activity.


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