Beyond Words - Language Blog

The Meaning and Roots of U.S. State Names

Our country has an incredibly rich linguistic and cultural history, a fact that becomes readily apparent by examining place names across the nation. Drawing from Latin, Spanish, French, and a host of Native languages, the names of the states paint a robust picture of the country’s roots.

Alabama: From the Choctaw language albah amo, meaning “plant-cutters.”

Alaska: From the Aleut language alaxsxaq, meaning “mainland.”

Arizona: From the Basque arizonak, meaning “good oaks.”

Arkansas: From the French spelling of the name of the Quapaw peoples.

California: From the Spanish name of the fictional Queen Calafia, a character in the 16th century novel Las Sergas de Esplandian. This book was influential among Spanish explorers.

Colorado: From the Spanish colorado, meaning “reddish.” This designation referred to the Colorado River silt.

Connecticut: From the Algonquian quinnitukqut, meaning “tidal river.”

Delaware: From the French de la Warr, named after the first Governor-General of Jamestown.

Florida: From the Spanish pascua florida, meaning “flowery Easter”, so named for the season in which the state was discovered by the Spanish.

Georgia: Originally from the Greek ge, meaning “earth” and ergon, meaning “work”, this combination meant “farmer.” The state was named after King George II.

Hawaii: From the Hawaiian and originally Proto-Polynesian Hawaiki, meaning “place of the gods.”

Idaho: Of contested origin, but most likely from the Apache idaahe, meaning “enemy” and used towards the Comanches.

Illinois: From the French adaptation of the Algonquian ilenweewa, meaning “speaks normally.”

Indiana: From Latin, meaning “land of the Indians.”

Iowa: From the French Aiouez, named after the Iowa tribe of Native Americans.

Kansas: From the French, named after the Kaw tribe of Native Americans.

Kentucky: From the Iroquois language kenhtak or gedageh, most likely meaning “on the meadow.”

Louisiana: From the French and named after King Louis XIV of France. The original Frankish hluda, the root of the name, meant “famous.”

Maine: Most likely called after the French province of the same name.

Maryland: Named after Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I of England.

Massachusetts: From the Algonquian, meaning “near the great hill.”

Michigan: From the Ojibwe language mishigami, meaning “large lake.”

Minnesota: From the Dakota language mnisota, meaning “cloudy water.”

Mississippi: From the Ojibwe language misiziibi, meaning “great river.”

Missouri: From the Illinois language mihsoori, meaning “dugout canoe”, for which the Missouri tribe was well known.

Montana: From the Spanish montaña, meaning “mountain.”

Nebraska: From the Chiwere language nibraske, meaning “flattened water” and referring to the plains surrounding the Platte River.

Nevada: From the Spanish nevada, meaning “snow-covered.”

New Hampshire: Named after Hampshire County in England.

New Jersey: Named after Sir George de Carteret, one of the founders of the largest of the British Channel Islands, Jersey.

New Mexico: From the Nahuatl language Mēxihca, named after the Aztec people.

New York: Named after the Duke of York, who would later become King James II of England. The name “York” is derived from Old English Eoforwic, which originally may have meant “Yew-Tree Estate.”

North Carolina: Named after King Charles I of England. The root of the word is derived from the Frankish karl, meaning “man” or “husband.”

North Dakota: From the Sioux language dakhota, meaning “ally.”

Ohio: From the Seneca language ohi:yo, meaning “large creek” and referring to the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers.

Oklahoma: From the Choctaw language okla, meaning “people” and homa, meaning “red.”

Oregon: From the Algonquian language wauregan, meaning “beautiful.”

Pennsylvania: Named after Admiral William Penn, the state’s name means “Penn’s woods.”

Rhode Island: Either from the Dutch rood eiland, meaning “red island” or for its resemblance to the Aegean island of Rhodes.

South Carolina: Named after King Charles I of England. The root of the word is derived from the Frankish karl, meaning “man” or “husband.”

South Dakota: From the Sioux language dakhota, meaning “ally.”

Tennessee: From the Cherokee language tanasi, the name of a Cherokee village.

Texas: From the Caddo language taysha, meaning “friend.”

Utah: From the Western Apache language yudah, meaning “high.” The Spanish used the word yuta to refer to the Ute people of the region.

Vermont: From the French vert, meaning “green” and mont, meaning “mountain.”

Virginia: Named after Queen Elizabeth I of England, known as the Virgin Queen.

Washington: Named after George Washington and the only state to be named in honor of a U.S. president.

West Virginia: Named after Queen Elizabeth I of England, known as the Virgin Queen. West Virginia separated from Virginia during the Civil War.
Wisconsin: From the Miami language wishkonsing, meaning “red place.”

Wyoming: From the Munsee Delaware language xwe:wamenk, meaning “at the big river flat.”


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.

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