The Origins of State Names


When Word People go on a road trip, they look at road signs.

Looking at road signs leads to questions, such as:

  • “Why do they call that state ‘Connecticut’ anyway?”
  • “If there is a New Hampshire, surely there must be an Old Hampshire somewhere?”

Never fear … your answers are here! (Well, most of them on this particular topic, at least.)

Jump to:   A C D F G H I K L M N O P R S T U V W


Alabama: From Alabama River by early European explorers and named “Alibamu” after the local Native American tribe

Alaska: Corruption of Aleut word meaning “great land” or “that which the sea breaks against”

Arizona: Uncertain, perhaps from the O’odham word for “little spring”

Arkansas: From the Quapaw tribe


California: From a book, Las Sergas de Esplandián, by Garcia Ordóñez de Montalvo, c. 1500

Colorado: From the Spanish, “ruddy” or “red”

Connecticut: From a Quinnehtukqut word meaning “beside the long tidal river”


Delaware: From Delaware River and Bay; named in turn for Sir Thomas West, Baron De La Warr


Florida: From the Spanish Pascua Florida, meaning “feast of flowers” (Easter)


Georgia: In honor of George II of England


Hawaii: Uncertain. The islands may have been named by Hawaii Loa, their traditional discoverer. Or they may have been named after Hawaii or Hawaiki, the traditional home of the Polynesians.


Idaho: An invented name of unknown meaning

Illinois: Algonquin for “tribe of superior men”

Indiana: Meaning “land of Indians”

Iowa: From the Iowa River which was named after the Ioway tribe


Kansas: From a Sioux word meaning “people of the south wind”

Kentucky: From an Iroquoian word “Ken-tah-ten” meaning “land of tomorrow”


Louisiana: In honor of Louis XIV of France


Maine: The name was first used to distinguish the mainland from the offshore islands. It has been considered a compliment to Henrietta Maria, queen of Charles I of England. She was said to have owned the province of Mayne in France.

Maryland: In honor of Henrietta Maria (queen of Charles I of England)

Massachusetts: From the Massachusett tribe of Native Americans, meaning “at or about the great hill”

Michigan: From a Native American word “Michigana” meaning “great or large lake”

Minnesota: From a Dakota word meaning “sky-tinted water”

Mississippi: From a Native American word meaning “Father of Waters”

Missouri: The state is named after the Missouri tribe. “Missouri” means “town of the large canoes.”

Montana: From the Spanish word meaning “mountain”


Nebraska: From an Oto word meaning “flat water”

Nevada: In Spanish, “snowcapped”

New Hampshire: From the English county of Hampshire

New Jersey: From the Channel Isle of Jersey

New Mexico: From Mexico, “place of Mexitli,” an Aztec god or leader

New York: In honor of the Duke of York

North Carolina: In honor of Charles I of England

North Dakota: From the Sioux tribe, meaning “allies”


Ohio: From an Iroquoian word meaning “great river”

Oklahoma: From two Choctaw words meaning “red people”

Oregon: Unknown. However, it is generally accepted that the name, first used by Jonathan Carver in 1778, was taken from the writings of Maj. Robert Rogers, an English army officer.


Pennsylvania: The state is names in honor of Adm. Sir William Penn, father of William Penn. It means “Penn’s Woodland.”


Rhode Island: From the Greek Island of Rhodes


South Carolina: In honor of Charles I of England

South Dakota: From the Sioux tribe, meaning “allies”


Tennessee: The word is of Cherokee origin; the exact meaning is unknown.

Texas: From a Native American word meaning “friends”


Utah: From the Ute tribe, meaning “people of the mountains”


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

Virginia: In honor of Elizabeth “Virgin Queen” of England


Washington: In honor of George Washington

West Virginia: In honor of Elizabeth, “Virgin Queen” of England

Wisconsin: French corruption of a Native American word whose meaning is disputed

Wyoming: From the Delaware tribe word meaning “mountains and valleys alternating;” the same as the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania


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