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 New Mexico through South Carolina. (Be sure to also check out Monday’s post on Alabama through Georgia, Tuesday’s post on Hawaii through Maryland, and Wednesday's post on Massachusetts through New Jersey.)
New Mexico and the country it used to be part of, Mexico, both take their name from Nahuatl Mexihco. The meaning of the word is unclear, but there are several hypotheses. It might reference Mextli or M?xihtli, an alternate name for Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and patron of the Aztecs, and mean “place where M?xihtli lives”. It’s also been suggested that the word is a combination of m?tztli (“moon”), xictli (“center”) and the suffix -co (“place”) and means “place at the center of the moon” (in reference to Lake Texcoco).
Both the state and New York City were named for James Stuart, Duke of York and future King James II of England. The old York, a city in England, has been around since before the Romans made their way to the British Isles and the word York comes from the Romans’ Latin name for city, written variously as Eboracum, Eburacum and Eburaci. Tracing the name further back is difficult, as the language of the area’s pre-Roman indigenous people was never recorded. They are thought to have spoken a Celtic language, though, and Eboracum may have been derived from the Brythonic Eborakon, which means “place of the yew trees.”
King Charles II of England, who granted a charter to start a colony in modern-day North Carolina, named the land in honor of his father, Charles I. Carolina comes from Carolus, the Latin form of Charles.
North and South Dakota both take their names from the Dakota, a tribe of Siouan people who lived in the region. No detailed etymology of Dakota is widely accepted, but the most common explanation is that it means “friend” or “ally” in the language of the Sioux.
A common translation, “beautiful river,” originates in a French traveler’s 1750 account of visiting the region. He referred to the Ohio River as “une belle riviere” and gave its local Indian name as Ohio. People took his description of the river as a translation of the Indian name, though there is no evidence that that was his intention or that that is even a correct translation. In fact, no definitive meaning for the word is available, though ohio is more likely a Wyandot word meaning “large/great” or “the great one,” than “beautiful river.” It could also be derived from the Seneca ohi:yo’ (“large creek”).
Oklahoma is a combination of the Choctaw words ukla (“person”) and humá (“red”). The word was used by the Choctaw to describe Native Americans, “red persons.” Allen Wright, chief of the Choctaw Nation from 1866 to 1870, suggested the name in 1866 during treaty negotiations with the federal government over the use of the Indian Territory. When the Indian Territory was whittled down to what is now Oklahoma, the new territory took its name from the Choctaw word.
The origin of Oregon may be the most hotly debated of the state names. Here’s a few of the competing explanations (and I may have even missed a few):
- Derived from the French ouragan (“hurricane”) and the state named so because French explorers called the Columbia River le fleuve aux ouragans (“Hurricane River”) due to the strong winds in the Columbia Gorge.
- Derived from oolighan, a Chinook name for the eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), a smelt found along the Pacific coast and prized as a source of food for Native Americans in the area.
- Derived from the Spanish orejón (“big ears”), which early Spanish explorers reportedly used to refer to local natives.
- Derived from Ouragon, a word used by Major Robert Rogers in a 1765 petition asking the British government to finance and supply an overland search for the Northwest Passage. As to where Rogers got the word, it could have come from an error on a French-made map from the early 1700s, where the Ouisiconsink (“Wisconsin River”) is misspelled “Ouaricon-sint,” and broken so “Ouaricon” sits on a line by itself or it might have been derived from the Algonquian wauregan or olighin, which both mean “good and beautiful” (and were both used in reference to the Ohio River at the time).
- Derived from the Shoshone words Ogwa (river) and Pe-On (west) and picked up from the Sioux, who referred to the Columbia as the “River of the West,” by American explorer Jonathan Carver.
Named in honor of Admiral William Penn. The land was granted to Penn’s son, William Penn, to pay off a debt owed by the crown to the senior Penn. The name is made up of Penn + sylva (“woods” ) + nia (a noun suffix) to get “Penn's Woodland.” The younger Penn was embarrassed by the name and feared that people would think he had named the colony after himself, but King Charles would not rename the land.
First used in a letter by Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, in which he compares an island near the mouth of Narragansett Bay (a bay on the north side of Rhode Island Sound) to the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean. The explanation preferred by the state government is that Dutch explorer Adrian Block named the area Roodt Eylandt (“red island”) in reference to the red clay that lined the shore and the name was later anglicized under British rule.
See North Carolina above.