The history of the United States is one of mixed heritage, manifest destiny and a melting pot patchwork of different identities and languages from around the world. It’s no surprise, then, that the state names of the 50 American states don’t all come from a single source; the contexts of their geography and time shaped what the earliest settlers called the territories they lived in.
Some states were born from the original 13 colonies on the country’s eastern coast. Some were territories in the Great Plains and the west that earned their statehood in the mid-19th century. Others, still, were ceded to the United States from European powers who had holdings in North America. States’ nomenclature depends on a whole host of factors and histories. Keep reading to learn about the etymology of American state names.
State Names From Native American Words
Roughly half of the state names in the U.S. can trace their origins back to the Native American tribes who inhabited the land long before the arrival of the first European settlers around the 16th and 17th centuries — the settlers who, generations later, would eventually establish what would be known as the United States of America.
These European settlers decimated native communities with wars and diseases like smallpox, drastically shrinking indigenous populations as the United States came into existence and continued to grow over the following centuries. But even though they were largely wiped out, the Native Americans were vital in shaping the fledgling nation from the beginning, as evidenced by the fact that so many American state names have their roots in Native American names and words.
Many of these words, which were often originally the names of rivers or landmarks in the area in question, got “anglicized” or “French-ified,” and the results are state names that have been butchered and somewhat or wholly corrupted from their original spellings and pronunciations.
Here’s a list of state names that come from Native American names:
- Alabama — from a Choctaw word meaning “thicket-clearers” or “plant-pickers”
- Alaska — from an Aleut word (by way of Russian) that roughly means “mainland” or “that which the sea breaks against”
- Arkansas — a French version of the Illinois name for the Quapaw people
- Connecticut — from an Algonquian name meaning “beside/at the long tidal river”
- Illinois — a French adaptation of an Algonquian word possibly meaning “speaks normally” or “men” in general, or referring to a group known as the Illinois
- Iowa — from a Dakota word for the Ioway tribe, by way of French, perhaps meaning “beautiful land” or “sleepy ones”
- Kansas — used locally by several tribes, it probably means “people of the wind”
- Kentucky — from an Iroquois word likely meaning “on the prairie” or perhaps “land of tomorrow”
- Massachusetts — derived from the Algonquian word meaning, roughly, “at the great hill”
- Michigan — an Ojibwe word for “large water” or “large lake” (Lake Michigan)
- Minnesota — from a Dakota word meaning “cloudy” or “sky-tinted water,” describing the Minnesota River
- Mississippi — from the Ojibwe word that translates to “great river” (the Mississippi River)
- Missouri — an Illinois word meaning “dugout canoe,” named for the people who made them
- Nebraska — from an Oto word meaning “flattened water”
- Ohio — a Seneca word meaning “large creek” or “great river”
- Oklahoma — from a Choctaw expression meaning “red people”
- North (and South) Dakota — named after a Sioux word meaning “friend”
- Tennessee — likely from a Cherokee word whose meaning is unknown, perhaps the name of a village
- Texas — from a Caddo word meaning “friend” or “friends,” referring to tribal allies
- Utah — from the name of the Ute tribe; their name means “people of the mountains”
- Wisconsin — a corrupted spelling of a French pronunciation of a Miami word meaning “it lies red” or perhaps from an Ojibwe term meaning “red-stone place”
- Wyoming — likely from a Delaware word meaning “alternating mountains and valleys”
State Names Named After British People And Places
It’s not all that shocking that American colonists adopted geographical names of English origin, considering how closely interwoven the thirteen colonies were with the crown of Britain — which was, after all, the power against whom the colonists fought an entire war for their independence.
You can see the British legacy in the names of states like New Jersey, New York or New Hampshire, whose namesakes are tied back to Britain or its direct sphere of influence. (If you’re wondering, Jersey is one of the isles in the English Channel, York is a historic city in northern England and Hampshire is a county on England’s southern coast.)
The British also named their colonies after people, often European royalty or nobility. That’s how you get “Maryland” from Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of English king Charles I. “Delaware,” the name of the coastal state and the river famously crossed by Washington, gets its name from the first governor-general of the colony at Jamestown, Sir Thomas West, Lord De La Warr (though his name likely comes from Old Norman French).
A common naming trend in the colonies was to take an English name and to “Latinize” it, giving “Georgia” for the colony named after King George II and “Carolina”, what would eventually be split into North and South Carolina, for King Charles I (who was married to the same Queen Henrietta Maria). “Pennsylvania” is a combo of the last name of William Penn, the founder of the colony (and later state) and the Latin-derived silvania, or “woodland” (etymological junkies will note that the name “Penn” is itself from Welsh). Even Virginia’s name (and eventually West Virginia’s) comes from the nickname for Queen Elizabeth I, who was known as the “Virgin Queen” because she never had a husband.
The “Latinization” of English names mentioned above was also applied to other words, giving us “Indiana,” which means “land of the Indians” (the misnomer for the native populations of North America that stuck after Columbus thought he had reached the Indies by sailing west).
State Names From Spanish
The Spanish got to North America long before the British and were able to establish a linguistic legacy in what would hundreds of years later become the United States.
Florida was discovered in the early 1500s by the Spanish during the Easter season and thus originally named Pascua Florida, or “Flowered” or “Flowery Easter.” (A fun anecdote for history nerds: St. Augustine, on Florida’s northeast coast, was founded by the Spanish in 1565 and is considered the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in what is today the continental United States).
Spanish influence in American state names can be seen today in the western part of the country, too. The name “California” is actually one of the oldest European names given to a territory in the New World. It is rumored to have come from a 1510 Spanish novel called Las sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, in which the character Queen Calafia rules over a fictional island named California. “Colorado” refers to the ruddy, reddish color of the Colorado River, and “Nevada” translates to “snow-covered,” describing the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Before New Mexico was calqued to become “New,” it was Nuevo Mexico.
And traveling way north about halfway between the coasts, even, you can find the legacy of Spanish words. The name of Montana, which borders Canada, is rooted in the Spanish montaña, which means “mountain.”
State Names From French
The French once had an impressively large swath of territory in North America, and not just their holdings in what is today known as Canada.
The Louisiana Territory, named for Louis XIV and known as La Louisiane in French, was sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1803 and later divided up into what would become parts of 15 different states — including a fraction of what’s now Louisiana, which encompasses the land at and before the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The name for Vermont comes from the French vert mont, or “green mountain.” And as we mentioned above, “Delaware” is named after an English man whose name comes from Old French.
State Names That Come From… Everywhere Else (Or From Who Knows Where?)
It’s clear that not all American state names can be traced back to a direct source with pure certainty. There are some names that don’t quite fit into the above categories or that stand out as exceptions!
For example, the state of Washington was named after the country’s first president, George Washington. (It was the only state to be named after an American statesperson, though there were concerted efforts to make the State of (Benjamin) Franklin and the State of (Thomas) Jefferson a reality.)
Left over are a handful of states whose names have disputed origins. Among them are Idaho (is it from the Plains Apache word for “enemy,” or was it just made up?), Arizona (derived, maybe, from Basque? or O’odham?), Oregon, Hawaii and Rhode Island, whose namesake is often debated to be either the Dutch roodt eylandt (“red island” for the red color of the clay on the coast) or the Greek island of Rhodes. And Maine’s etymology is murky; it could come from the name of a French province or an English village, some argue. Or maybe it just refers to the “main” land as opposed to the coastal islands.