How 17 Great American Cities Got Their Names

You know that Washington, D.C., is named for George Washington, but how well do you know where other major cities got their names? Here's a look at how a few of our bigger American municipalities found their monikers.

1. Atlanta
The ATL was very nearly the MAR. In the early 1840s, what is now Atlanta called itself "Marthasville," a nod to former governor Wilson Lumpkin's daughter Martha. The name changed to Atlanta in 1847, and although J. Edgar Thomson, chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad, gets credit for coining the "Atlanta" name, there is some debate over what inspired him. Some sources claim the aforementioned Martha Lumpkin's middle name was Atalanta. Others claim that Thomson took inspiration from Greek mythology's Atalanta. Still others claim that Thomson shortened the name from his original idea, "Atlantica-Pacifica."

2. Baltimore
Charm City gets its name from Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, the first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland from 1632 until 1675.

3. Boston
Like a lot of New England cities, colonists named Boston after the city they left back home. In this case, Boston, MA, is named after Boston, Lincolnshire, England. Unlike its New World namesake, Boston, England, is still fairly small; its population is just a hair under 60,000.

4. Chicago
Chicago may be the Windy City, but its name has a fragrant origin.

"Chicago" comes from the French pronunciation of shikaakwa the word for "wild garlic" in the Miami-Illinois language. Chicago was originally rife with the wild garlic we also know as ramps.

5. Cincinnati
Cincinnati was originally known as Losantiville, but that didn't sit well with territorial governor Arthur St. Clair. During a 1790 visit to Losantiville, St. Clair changed the name to Cincinnati to honor the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former Continental Army officers. (You guessed it; St. Clair was a member of the society.)

6. Cleveland

Cleveland takes its name from General Moses Cleaveland, a surveyor and investor for the Connecticut Land Company who led the first group to settle in the area in 1796. Cleaveland oversaw the planning of the early town, then headed back to Connecticut a few months later and never returned to the town that bears his name.

It's not exactly clear when the first "a" in his surname got dropped from the city's name, but one story explains that in 1830 the Cleveland Advertiser was pressed for space on its headline and simply axed the "a." The change caught on, and the town became known as Cleveland.

7. Denver
Colorado's capital is named after James W. Denver, a 19th-century Renaissance man who served in Congress, fought in the United States Army, and served as Governor of the Kansas Territory. He only visited his namesake city twice, in 1875 and 1882, and was reportedly unhappy that the residents didn't give him more of a hero's welcome.

8. Detroit
The Motor City gets its name from the French word détroit, or "strait," because of its position along the strait connecting Lake Erie to Lake Huron.

9. Los Angeles
The City of Angels' name has an appropriately religious background. Spanish settlers originally dubbed the settlement El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula, or "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion." The official name was eventually shortened to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, and it eventually became just "Los Angeles."

10. Miami
The hotbed of southern Florida is named after the Mayaimi, a Native American tribe that lived around Lake Okeechobee until the 17th or 18th century.

11. Minneapolis
This Minnesota city gets its name from two languages. In 1852 an early schoolteacher combined the Sioux word mni for "water" with the Greek word polis for "city" to get a name that paid tribute to the town's lakes.

12. New Orleans
French settlers originally called the Big Easy Nouvelle-Orléans in honor of Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans, who was Regent of France at the time of the city's founding.

13. Orlando
Disney World's hometown is another city whose name has murky origins. One local legend claims that the city is named after the character in Shakespeare's As You Like It, but the more commonly accepted tale is that a man named Orlando Reeves owned a plantation and sugar mill a bit north of what became the city. Early settlers found where Reeves had carved his name in a tree and assumed that it was a grave marker to a soldier who died in the Seminole War and mistakenly named their settlement after him.

14. Phoenix
When the Arizona city was first taking off in the late 1860s, settlers realized that their little town needed a name. Founder Jack Swilling, a Confederate veteran, wanted to name the town Stonewall in honor of Stonewall Jackson, but Darrell Duppa recognized that their site had been a Native American settlement centuries earlier. He suggested Phoenix because their new city would rise from the ruins of the former civilization.

15. Portland
There was a 50-50 shot that Portland, OR, was going to end up being called Boston, OR. In 1845 what is now known as Portland was just a small settlement called "the Clearing." Settlers Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove both wanted to name the settlement after their own hometowns. Lovejoy was from Boston, while Pettygrove was from Portland, ME. The pair settled their argument by flipping a penny. Pettygrove and Portland won the best-two-out-of-three contest, and the city became Portland. The so-called "Portland Penny" is still on display at the Oregon History Center.

16. San Antonio
The first Spanish missionaries and explorers came to what is now San Antonio on June 13, 1691, the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua. They named their settlement in his honor.

17. Seattle
Seattle gets its name from an English corruption of the name of Si'ahl, a Duwamish chief who was a valuable ally to the area's early white settlers.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER