Beyond Words - Language Blog

Etymology of Ten U.S. Cities

Read on to find out the fascinating and unexpected etymologies of ten of our country’s largest cities.

Albuquerque: Named for its founder, Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva, Duke of Albuquerque, the original word is derived from the Latin albus, meaning “white”, and quercus, meaning “oak.”

Atlanta:          Having undergone numerous name-changes – from Terminus to Thrasherville to Marthasville in the 19th century – the city was christened with its current name in 1847.  The name was shortened from Atlantica-Pacifica, which commemorated the completion of the Georgia Railroad.

Boise:              Taken from the French-Canadian boise, meaning “wooded”, the word’s Latin roots can also be seen in the Italian bosco and Spanish bosque, both meaning “woods.”

Chicago:         Like many U.S. cities and states, this name is most likely derived from one of several Native American languages.  Possible options include the Algonquian sheka-ko-heki, meaning “place of the wild onion,” or the Ojibwa shika-konk, meaning “at the skunk place.”

Cincinnati:     This city was named in honor of a lauded Roman hero named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.  The actual name comes from the Latin cincinnus, meaning “curly hair.”

Dallas:            Named in honor of George M. Dallas, vice president under James Polk, the name originally meant “dweller of the house in the dale” in Scottish Gaelic.

Denver:          Originally called Auraria, meaning “golden”, the city was renamed for the 19th-century general James W. Denver.  This surname stems from a location in Norfolk and literally means “passage used by the Danes.”

Philadelphia: Known as the “City of Brotherly Love”, this moniker comes from the Greek philos, meaning “love”, and adelphos, meaning “brother.”

Phoenix:         Named after the mythical Arabian bird that was reborn from its ashes every 500 years, the word most likely shares a root with “Phoenician”, or “purplish red.”  The U.S. city got this name because it was founded at the site of an ancient Native American settlement.

Seattle:           This northwestern city was named after Seatlh, a Native American chief who befriended the city’s white settlers.


Maria Khodorkovsky covers research at the intersection of language, psychology, and society for ALTA Language Services. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curbed, and on the websites of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament and the National Museum of Language. Maria studied Russian Translation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.