14 Surprising Origin Stories Behind State Names In The USA

Published on November 19, 2023

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Ever wondered where most US states’ names come from? From Native American roots to foreign or made-up words, the stories behind many of them are riddled with surprising historical references

Although the origin of some US states’ names is fairly obvious, many derive their names from unexpected people or places . The origin of names like Colorado, Montana, or Nevada are easy to infer - especially if you know a bit of Spanish - but many, many others have Native American origins with intriguing meanings. Some are even derived from fiction.

If you ever wanted to know where names like Oregon, Connecticut, or Wisconsin come from, you are in the right place. Enjoy the surprising etymologies behind some of the names that make our country.



Credit: Joshua Woroniecki

Interestingly, for a state whose main economic activity is agriculture, the word Alabama comes from the Choctaw language and can be translated as ‘plant-cutters’ or ‘vegetation pickers’, recalling the farming practices of the Native Americans that lived in this area.



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Alaska is a corruption of an Aleut word that means ‘mainland’, but can be translated literally as ‘the object towards which the action of the sea is directed’ . This is one of those names that manage to bring poetry into a word as simple and down-to-earth as ‘land’.



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This one comes from… a Spanish adventure novel! Bet you didn’t expect that. In ‘Las Sergas de Esplandin’ by Garcia Ordez de Montalvo, a book from the 1500s, there is a fictional place called the ‘Island of California’. Even when the modern state of California is clearly not an island, some die-hard fanatic of the novel decided to bring the name to life here in the U.S.



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Derived from the Algonquian word ‘quinnehtukqut’, which can be translated as ‘besides the long tidal river’, in reference to the river Connecticut. If you are wondering what the ‘tidal’ part means exactly, this is because the Connecticut River's flow and level are effectively influenced by tides along much of its course. Certainly some amazing insight into the rigorous knowledge of local hydrology that Native Americans managed to accrue over the centuries.



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Although the origin of this name is disputed, there are two main theories. One suggests that the islands may have been named after Hawaii Loa, their traditional discoverer. However, others have speculated that it is actually derived from the ancient Polynesian word ‘hawaiki’, meaning ‘place of the gods’.



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Another crazy one. Although the name was first claimed to be derived from a Shoshone word that meant ‘Gem of the Mountains’, it is highly likely that the word was fabricated by George M. Willing, and meant as a practical joke.



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Quite literally, ‘land of Indians’, using a Latin suffix. The words ‘‘Indians’ originally referred to the ancient dwellers of the shores of the Indus River, in South and Central Asia.



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‘Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore!’ said Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz, right after a rampant tornado literally lifted her house in the air and took it to God knows where. Well, this US state’s fame for violent winds predates even the first settlers, since ‘Kansas’ is a Native American word used by the Dakota, strongly related to the idea of ‘wind ’.



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This state owes its name to an Iroquoian word that means "land of tomorrow". Quite a blockbuster-worthy movie title , if you ask me.



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The origin story behind the name of ‘the Pine Tree State’ is still disputed. However, there are some interesting theories. One states that it derives from ‘mainland’, as a form of distinction from the many coastal islands in the vicinity. Other theories propose that it was named in honor of Henrietta Maria, queen of England, or that it was named after the province of Mayne in France.



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To the Native Americans that lived in this region, ‘Missouri’ meant ‘town of the large canoes’, as the Missouri tribes were renowned for their skill in making dugout canoes.



Credit: Ashley Levinson

A largely disputed one. Many suggest that the name has Spanish origins, being similar to other words like ‘orejón’ (meaning ‘big ear’) or ‘orégano’, in reference to a type of plant (similar to the Mediterranean oregano) that grows in the southern part of the state.



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This is the only state that has a part of its founder’s name in it. It is widely believed that Pennsylvania means ‘Penn’s Woodland’, and was named as such in honor of Sir William Penn, father of its founder William Penn.



Credit: Brydon McCluskey

This is probably a French corruption of a native Miami word that meant ‘it lies red’ or ‘river running through a red place’, in reference to the bed of the river Wisconsin.

If our quick dive into the peculiar world of US state names wasn’t enough to quench your curiosity, stay around! We will keep uploading more content related to language and the weird stories and etymologies behind many English and foreign words.

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