How Did the States in the USA Get Their Names? (Part III)

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Reader Adam from Fairfax, Virginia, wrote in to ask, "How did the US states get their names?" This week, we're tackling the origins and meaning of the names 10 states at a time. Here's Massachusetts through New Jersey. (Be sure to also check out Monday's post on Alabama through Georgia and Tuesday's post on Hawaii through Maryland.)


The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Bay Colony that preceded it were named after the area's indigenous people, the Massachusett. The tribe's name translates to "near the great hill," referring to the Blue Hills southwest of Boston. An alternate form of the tribe's name, the Moswetuset ("hill shaped like an arrowhead"), refers to the Moswetuset Hummock, an arrow-shaped mound in Quincy, MA.


The state takes its name from Lake Michigan. Michigan is a French derivative of the Ojibwa word misshikama (mish-ih-GAH-muh), which translates to "big lake," "large lake" or "large water."


Minnesota is derived from the Dakota tribe's name for the Minnesota River, mnisota (mni "water" + sota "cloudy, muddy;" sometimes translated to the more poetic "sky-tinted water"). The English language doesn't really dig words beginning with mn (you'll find only one, mnemonic), so early settlers in the region added some i's and produced a mini sound that they wrote as "mine." The city of Minneapolis combines mni with the Greek polis, or "city."


The state is named for the Mississippi River. You may have heard that mississippi means "the Father of Waters" and you may have heard that from no less a source than novelist James Fenimore Cooper or President Abraham Lincoln (who wrote in a letter after the Civil War, "the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea"). I hate to pee on Honest Abe's parade, but the word, a French derivation of the Ojibwa messipi (alternately misi-sipi or misi-ziibi) actually means "big river." It may not sound as dramatic as Lincoln's preferred translation, but whatever the meaning, the name caught on. As French explorers took the name down the river with them to the delta, it was adopted by local Indian tribes and replaced their own names, and the earlier Spanish explorers' names, for the river.


The state and the Missouri River are both named after the Missouri people, a southern Siouan tribe that lived along the river. Missouri comes from an Illinois language reference to the tribe, ouemessourita, which has been translated as "those who have dugout canoes," "wooden canoe people" or "he of the big canoe."


Montana is a variation of the Spanish montaña, or "mountain," a name applied because of its numerous mountain ranges (3,510 mountain peaks, total). Who first used the name, and when, is unknown.


Nebraska comes from the archaic Otoe Indian words Ñí Brásge (in contemporary Otoe, it would be Ñí Bráhge), meaning "flat water." The words refer to the Platte River, which flows across the Cornhusker State.


The state's name is the Spanish word for "snowfall" and refers to the Sierra Nevada ("snow-covered mountains") mountain range. The non-Nevadan pronunciation of the name "neh-vah-dah" (long A) differs from the local pronunciation "nuh-vae-duh" (short A) and is said to annoy Nevadans endlessly.

New Hampshire

John Mason named the area he received in a land grant after the English county of Hampshire, where he had lived for several years as a child. Mason invested heavily in the clearing of land and building of houses in New Hampshire, but died, in England, before ever venturing to the new world to see his property.

New Jersey

New Jersey was named for Jersey, the largest of the British Channel Islands, by its founders Sir John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. Carteret was born on Jersey and served as its Lieutenant Governor for several years.


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September 15, 2010 - 9:38am
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