How All 50 States Got Their Names

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Alabama

Alabama state flag
iStock

Before Europeans landed on American shores, the upper stretches of the Alabama River in present-day Alabama used to be the home lands of a Native American tribe called – drum roll, please – the Alabama (Albaamaha in their own tribal language). The river and the state both take their names from the tribe, that's clear enough, but the meaning of the name was another matter. Despite a wealth of recorded encounters with the tribe – Hernando de Soto was the first to make contact with them, followed by other Spanish, French and British explorers and settlers (who referred to the tribe, variously, as the Albama, Alebamon, Alibama, Alibamou, Alibamon, Alabamu, Allibamou, Alibamo and Alibamu) – there are no explanations of the name's meaning in the accounts of early explorers, so if the Europeans asked, they don't appear to have gotten an answer. An un-bylined article in the July 27, 1842 edition of the Jacksonville Republican put forth the idea that the word meant “here we rest.” Alexander Beaufort Meek, who served as the Attorney General of Alabama, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and the President of the First American Chess Congress, popularized this theory in his writings throughout the next decade.

The rub, of course, is that experts in the Alabama language have never been able to find any evidence to support that translation. What they did find are two words in the Choctaw language (both tribes' languages are in the Muskogean language family), alba (“plants” or “weeds”) and amo (“to cut” or “to gather”), that together make Albaamo, or “plant gatherers.” We also know that the Alabama referred to a member of their tribe as an Albaamo, cleared land and practiced agriculture largely without tools and by hand and had contact with the neighboring Choctaws. Today, the prevailing theory is that the phrase was used by the Choctaws to describe their neighbors and the Alabama eventually adopted it as their own.

Alaska

Alaska state flag
iStock

Like Alabama (and, as we'll see, plenty of other state names), the name Alaska comes from the language of the area's indigenous people. The Aleuts (a name given to them by Russian fur traders in the mid 18th century; they used to, and sometimes still do, call themselves the Unangan), natives of the Aleutian Islands, referred to the Alaskan Peninsula and the mainland as alaxsxaq (ah-lock-shock), literally, “the object toward which the action of the sea is directed.”

Arizona

Arizona flag
iStock

There are two sides in the argument over the origin of Arizona's name. One side says that the name comes from the Basque aritz onak (“good oak”) and was applied to the territory because the oak trees reminded the Basque settlers in the area of their homeland. The other side says that the name comes from the Spanish Arizonac, which was derived from the O'odham (the language of the native Pima people) word ali ?ona-g (“having a little spring”), which might refer to actual springs or a site near rich veins of silver discovered in 1736. For what it's worth, official Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble had supported the latter explanation but for now favors the former.

Arkansas

Arkansas flag
iStock

The first Europeans to arrive in the area of present-day Arkansas were French explorers accompanied by Illinois Indian guides. The Illinois referred to the Ugakhpa people native to the region as the Akansa (“wind people” or “people of the south wind”), which the French adopted and pronounced with an r. They added an s to the end for pluralization, and for some reason it stuck when the word was adopted as the state's name. The pronunciation of Arkansas was a matter of debate (Ar-ken-saw vs. Ar-kan-zes) until it was officially decided by an act of the state legislature in 1881.

California

California flag
iStock

California existed in European literature way before Europeans settled the Western U.S. It wasn't a state filled with vineyards and movie stars, but an island in the West Indies filled with gold and women. The fictional paradise, first mentioned in the early 1500s by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián, is ruled by Queen Califia and “inhabited by black women, without a single man among them, [living in] the manner of Amazons.” The island is said to be “one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks... everywhere abounds with gold and precious stones” and is home to griffins and other mythical beasts.

While there is some consensus that the area was named for the fictional island, scholars have also suggested that the name comes from the Catalan words calor (“hot”) and forn (“oven”) or from a Native America phrase, kali forno (“high hill”).

Colorado

Colorado flag
iStock

Colorado is a Spanish adjective that means “red.” The early Spanish explorers in the Rocky Mountain region named a river they found the Rio Colorado for the reddish silt that the water carried down from the mountains. When Colorado became a territory in 1861, the Spanish word was used as a name because it was commonly thought that the Rio Colorado originated in the territory. This was not the case, however. Prior to 1921, the Colorado River began where the Green River of Utah and the Grand River of Colorado converged outside of Moab, Utah, and the United States Geological Survey identified Green River of Wyoming as the Colorado's actual headwaters. The Rio Colorado did not actually flow through Colorado until 1921, when House Joint Resolution 460 of the 66th United States Congress changed the name of the Grand River.

Connecticut

Connecticut flag
iStock

The state is named after the Connecticut River, which was named quinnitukqut by the Mohegans who lived in the eastern upper Thames valley. In their Algonquian language, the word means “long river place” or “beside the long tidal river.”

Delaware

Delaware flag
iStock

Delaware is named for the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. These, in turn, were named for Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, the first colonial governor of Virginia, who traveled the river in 1610. The title is likely ultimately derived from the Old French de la werre (“of the war” or a warrior).

Florida

Florida flag
iStock

Six days after Easter in 1513, the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León landed near what is now the city of Saint Augustine. In honor of the holiday and the area's plant life, he named the land Florida for the Spanish phrase for the Easter season, pascua florida (“feast of flowers”). The name is the oldest surviving European place-name in the U.S.

Georgia

Georgia state flag
iStock

In the early 18th century, the British Parliament assigned a committee to investigate the conditions of the country's debtor prisons and didn't like what they found. A group of philanthropists concerned with the plight of debtors proposed the creation of a colony in North America where the “worthy poor” could get back on their feet and be productive citizens again. Their plan ultimately didn't pan out as the colony wasn't settled by debtors, but the trustees of the colony still wanted to thank King George II for granting their charter, so they named the place after him.

(Bonus: The nation of Georgia is supposedly called so because its inhabitants revere St. George and feature his cross on their flag, though Georgians refer to themselves as Kartvelebi and their country as Sakartvelo.)

Hawaii

Hawaii flag
iStock

No one is certain, so take your pick. The name may come from the Proto-Polynesian Sawaiki or "homeland" (some early explorers' accounts have the natives calling the place Hawaiki, a compound of hawa, "homeland," and ii, "small, active") or from Hawaii Loa, the Polynesian who tradition says discovered the islands.

Idaho

Idaho flag
iStock

The origin of Idaho's name, like a few other names we've already talked about, is a mystery. When it was proposed as the name of a new U.S. territory, it was explained as a derivation of the Shoshone Indian term ee-da-how, meaning "gem of the mountains" or "the sun comes from the mountains." It's possible that the word, and its Indian origin, were made up by the man who proposed the name, George M. Willing, an eccentric industrialist and mining lobbyist (not all historians and linguists agree on this, though, and the most common alternate explanation is that the name comes from the Apache word idaahe ("enemy"), which the Kiowas Indians applied to the Comanches they came in contact with when they migrated to southern Colorado). When Congress was considering establishing a mining territory in the Rocky Mountains in 1860, Willing and B. D. Williams, a delegate from the region, championed "Idaho." The request for the name came up in the Senate in January 1861 and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon objected to "Idaho," saying, "I do not believe it is an Indian word. It is a corruption. No Indian tribe in this nation has that word, in my opinion... It is a corruption certainly, a counterfeit, and ought not to be adopted." Lane was roundly ignored, probably because he had the bad luck of having been the vice presidential candidate for the pro-slavery southern wing of the Democratic Party in the previous year's election.

After the Senate approved the name, Williams, for some reason, gave into curiosity and looked into Lane's claim. He heard from several sources that Willing or someone in his group of territorial supporters had invented the name "Idaho" and that the word didn't actually mean anything. Williams went back to the Senate and requested that the name be changed. The Senate agreed and used a name that had been on the table before Willing and Williams showed up: "Colorado."

A year later, Congress set out to establish another mining territory in the northwest part of the continent. "Idaho" was again a contender as a name. Without Williams there to call shenanigans and with the senators who should have remembered the last naming incident just a little bit preoccupied with the Civil War, "Idaho" went unchallenged and became the name of the territory and the state.

Illinois

Illinois flag
iStock

"Illinois" is the modern spelling of the early French explorers' name for the people they found living in the area, which they spelled in endless variations in their records. The Europeans' first meeting with the Illinois was in 1674. Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary and explorer, followed a path to a village and asked the people there who they were. According to Marquette's writings, "They replied that they were Ilinois...when one speaks the word...it is as if one said, in their language, 'the men'." The explorers thought the tribal name to signify a grown man in his prime, separate from, and superior to, the men of other tribes.

Indiana

Indiana flag
iStock

The state's name means "Indian Land" or "Land of the Indians," named so for the Indian tribes that lived there when white settlers arrived. While its meaning might be simple enough, the way it got the name is a little more interesting. At the end of the French and Indian War, the French were forced out of the Ohio Valley, so a Philadelphia trading company moved in to monopolize trade with the Indians in the area. At the time, the tribes of the Iroquois had already formed a confederacy and conquered territory beyond their home lands, subjugating other tribes and treating them as tributaries. In the fall of 1763, members of the Shawnee and other tribes who were tributary to the Iroquois Confederacy conducted raids on traders from the Philadelphia company and stole their goods. The company complained to the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy and demanded restitution. The chiefs accepted responsibility for the behavior of their tributaries, but did not have the money to pay off the debt. Instead, when making a boundary treaty with the English five years later, the chiefs gave a 5,000-square-mile tract of land to the Philadelphia company, which accepted the land as payment.

The land's new owners, in the search for a name, noted a trend in the way states and countries in both the Old World and New World were named. Bulgaria was the land of the Bulgars, Pennsylvania was the woodland of Penn, etc. They decided to honor the people to whom the land originally belonged and from whom it had been obtained and named it Indiana, land of the Indians. The year the colonies declared their independence from Britain, the Indiana land was transferred to a new company, who wanted to sell it. Some of the land, though, was within the boundaries of Virginia, which claimed that it had jurisdiction over the land's settlers and forbade the company from selling it. In 1779, the company asked Congress to settle the matter. It made an attempt, but, still operating under Articles of Confederation, had no power to compel Virginia to do anything. The argument eventually went to the United States Supreme Court, but Virginia's government officials, strong believers in states' rights, refused to become involved with a federal court and ignored the summons to appear. In the meantime, Virginia's politicians worked to secure the Eleventh Amendment, which protected the states' sovereign immunity from being sued in federal court by someone of another state or country (and was proposed in response to a Supreme Court case dealing with Georgia's refusal to appear to hear a suit against itself, in which the Supreme Court decided against Georgia).

After the amendment was passed and ratified, the company's suit was dismissed and it lost its claim to the land, which was absorbed by Virginia. The name would come back in 1800, when Congress carved the state of Ohio out of the Northwest Territory and gave the name "Indiana" to the remaining territorial land and, 16 years later, a new state.

Iowa

Iowa flag
iStock

Iowa's name comes from the Native American tribe that once lived there, the Ioway. What the word means depends on who you ask.

One pioneer in the area wrote in 1868 that "some Indians in search of a new home encamped on a high bluff of the Iowa River near its mouth...and being much pleased with the location and the country around it, in their native dialect exclaimed, 'Iowa, Iowa, Iowa' (beautiful, beautiful, beautiful), hence the name Iowa to the river and to those Indians." A report from the 1879 General Assembly of Iowa translated the word a little differently and claimed it meant "the beautiful land." However, members of the Ioway Nation, who today inhabit Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, will tell you that Ioway is the French spelling of Ayuhwa, a name meaning "sleepy ones" given to the tribe in jest by the Dakota Sioux. (The Ioway refer to themselves as Baxoje (bah-ko-jay) or "the gray/ashy heads," a name that stems from an incident where tribe members were camping in the Iowa River valley and a gust of wind blew sand and campfire ashes onto their heads.)

Kansas

Kansas flag
iStock

Kansas was named after the Kansas River, which was named after the Kansa tribe who lived along its banks. Kansa, a Siouan word, is thought to be pretty old. How old? Its full and original meaning was lost to the tribe before they even met their first white settler. Today, we only know that the word has some reference to the wind, possibly "people of the wind" or "people of the south wind."

Kentucky

Kentucky flag
iStock

There is no consensus on where Kentucky's name comes from. Among the possibilities, though, are various Indians words, all from the Iroquoian language group, meaning "meadow," "prairie," "at the prairie," "at the field," "land of tomorrow," "river bottom," and "the river of blood."

Louisiana

Louisiana flag
iStock

Louisiana comes from the French La Louisiane, or "Land of Louis." It was named for Louis XIV, the King of France from 1643 to 1715. Exciting, no?

Maine

Maine state flag
iStock

Maine is another case where no one is quite sure how the name came about. Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason, who received a charter for land in Maine, were both English Royal Navy veterans, and the name may have originated with the sailors differentiating "the mainland" from the many islands off the state's coast. Maine's state legislature, meanwhile, passed a resolution in 2001 that established Franco-American Day and claimed that the state was named after the French province of Maine.

Maryland

Maryland flag
iStock

The English colony of Maryland was named for Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, who granted Maryland's charter. Mariana was also proposed as a name, but Maryland's founder, Sir Lord Baltimore, believed in the divine right of kings and turned the name down because it reminded him of the Spanish Jesuit and historian Juan de Mariana, who taught that the will of the people was higher than the law of tyrants.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts flag
iStock

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.

Michigan

Michigan flag
iStock

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

Minnesota flag
iStock

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."

Mississippi

Mississippi flag
iStock

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 after Union victories during 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.

Missouri

Missouri flag
iStock

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

Montana flag
iStock

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

Nebraska state flag
iStock

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.

Nevada

Nevada state flag
iStock

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 sounds like the a in father) differs from the local pronunciation "nuh-vae-duh" (short A sounds like the a in alligator) and is said to annoy Nevadans endlessly.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire flag
iStock

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 flag
iStock

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.

New Mexico

New Mexico flag
iStock

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).

New York

New York flag
iStock

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.”

North Carolina

North Carolina flag
iStock

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 Dakota

North Dakota flag
iStock

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.

Ohio

Ohio flag
iStock

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

Oklahoma flag
iStock

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.

Oregon

Oregon flag
iStock

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.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania flag
iStock

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.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island flag
iStock

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.

South Carolina

South Carolina flag
iStock

See North Carolina above.

South Dakota

South Dakota flag
iStock

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.

Tennessee

Tennessee flag
iStock

While traveling inland from South Carolina in 1567, Spanish explorer Juan Pardo passed through a Native American village in modern-day Tennessee named Tanasqui. Almost two centuries later, British traders came upon a Cherokee village called Tanasi (in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee). No one knows whether Tanasi and Tanasqui were actually the same village, though it is known that Tanasi was located on the Little Tennessee River and recent research suggests that Tanasqui was close to the confluence of the Pigeon River and the French Broad River (near modern-day Newport). Tennessee could have come from either one of these village names, but the meanings of both words have since been lost.

Texas

Texas flag
iStock

Texas comes from teysha (sometimes spelled tejas, tayshas, texias, thecas, techan, teysas, or techas), a word widely used by the natives of the eastern Texas region before the arrival of the Spanish. The tribes had various spellings and interpretations of the word, but the usual meaning was “friends” or “allies.” Some tribes, like the Hasinais and the Caddo, used it as a greeting, “hello, friend.” This is the usage that Spanish explorers picked up and used to greet friendly tribes throughout Texas and Oklahoma. The explorers also applied the word as a name for the Caddo people and the area around their East Texas settlement.

Utah

Utah flag
iStock

Derived from the name of the native tribe known as the Nuutsiu or Utes (which itself may come from the Apache yudah, yiuta or yuttahih, meaning “they who are higher up”), whom the Spanish first encountered in modern-day Utah in the late 1500s. In the tribe’s language, ute means “Land of the Sun.” (The tribe referred to themselves as the “Nuciu” or “Noochew,” which simply means “The People.”)

Vermont

Vermont flag
iStock

Derived from the French words vert (“green”) and mont (“mountain”). Samuel Peters claimed that he christened the land with that name in 1763 while standing on top of a mountain, saying, “The new name is Vert-Mont, in token that her mountains and hills shall be ever green and shall never die." Most historians would disagree, as would Thomas Young, the Pennsylvania statesman who suggested that his state’s constitution be used as the basis for Vermont's and is generally credited with suggesting the name to maintain the memory of the Green Mountain Boys, the militia organization formed to resist New York’s attempted take-over of the area.

Virginia

Virginia state flag
iStock

Named for Queen Elizabeth I of England (known as the Virgin Queen), who granted Walter Raleigh the charter to form a colony north of Spanish Florida.

Washington

Washington state flag
iStock

Named in honor of the first president of the United States, George Washington. In the eastern US, the state is referred to as Washington State or the state of Washington to distinguish it from the District of Columbia, which they usually just call “Washington”, "D.C." or, if they're very local, "the District." Washingtonians and other Pacific Northwesterners simply call the state “Washington” and refer to the national capital as “Washington, D.C.” or just “D.C.”

West Virginia

West Virginia flag
iStock

West Virginia, formed from 39 Virginia counties whose residents voted to form a new state rather than join the Confederacy, was named after the same queen as the state it split from, though the new state was originally to be called Kanawha.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin flag
iStock

Derived from Meskousing, the name applied to the Wisconsin River by the Algonquian-speaking tribes in the region. The French explorer Jacques Marquette recorded the name in 1673, and the word was eventually corrupted into Ouisconsin, anglicized to its modern form during the early 19th century, and its current spelling made official by the territorial legislature in 1845. Modern linguists had been unable to find any word in an Algonquian language similar to the one Marquette recorded, and now believe that the tribes borrowed the name from the Miami meskonsing, or “it lies red,” a reference to the reddish sandstone of the Wisconsin Dells.

Wyoming

Wyoming flag
iStock

Derived from the Delaware (Lenape) Indian word mecheweami-ing (“at/on the big plains”), which the tribe used to refer their home region in Pennsylvania (which was eventually named the Wyoming Valley [Wilkes-Barre represent!]). Other names considered for the new territory were Cheyenne, Shoshoni, Arapaho, Sioux, Platte, Big Horn, Yellowstone and Sweetwater, but Wyoming was chosen because it was already in common use by the territory’s settlers.

10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

iStock.com/LeitnerR
iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Its name comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. You can call them thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

10 Endangered Alphabets You Should See Before It's Too Late

The Glagolitic script carved into wood
The Glagolitic script carved into wood
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

The Arabic and Simplified Chinese scripts aren't in danger of going anywhere anytime soon, but the same can't be said for Balinese, Mali, Pahawh (or Pahauh) Hmong, and the other 100-some alphabets that Vermont-based writer Tim Brookes has cataloged in his online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, which is set for a soft launch on January 17. The featured alphabets—which Brookes has loosely defined to include writing systems of all sorts—are vanishing for varied reasons, including government policies, war, persecution, cultural assimilation, and globalization.

“The world is becoming much more dependent on global communications and those global communications take place in a relatively small number of writing systems—really something between 15 and 20,” Brookes tells Mental Floss. “And because that’s the case, all the others are to some degree being eroded.”

The atlas will include a bit of background information about each alphabet as well as links to any organizations attempting to revive them. By creating a hub for these alphabets, Brookes hopes to connect people who want to preserve their language and culture, while also showing the world how beautiful and intricate some of these scripts—including the 10 below—can be.

1. Cherokee

Although the Manataka American Indian Council says an ancient Cherokee writing system may have existed at one point but was lost to history, Cherokee was more or less a spoken language up until the early 19th century. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah started working on an 86-character writing system known as a syllabary, in which the symbols represent syllables. Most remarkably, Sequoyah himself had never learned how to read. At the time, many Native Americans deeply distrusted writing systems, and Sequoyah was put on trial for witchcraft after tribal leaders caught wind of his new creation. However, once they realized that written Cherokee could be used to preserve their language and culture, they asked Sequoyah to start teaching the syllabary. “The Cherokee achieved 90 percent literacy more rapidly than any other people in history that we know of,” Brookes says. “[Sequoyah’s syllabary] is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.”

After a period of decline in the years following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Cherokee language education saw somewhat of a revival in the late 20th century. The predominance of English and the Latin alphabet has made these efforts an uphill battle, though. Brookes says it’s difficult to find people who can teach the script, and even among Cherokee translators, few are confident in their grasp of the writing system.

2. Inuktitut

A stop sign containing the Inuktitut script
A stop sign in Nunavut, Canada
Sébastien Lapointe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Nine different writing systems are used among Canada’s 59,500 Inuit. Many of these are based on the Latin alphabet, but the one shown above uses syllabics that were first introduced by European missionaries in the 19th century. Since it’s difficult and costly to represent each of these writing systems in official documents, many Inuit officials write and hold meetings in English, all but ensuring the demise of their mother tongue. However, Canada’s national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is now in the process of developing one common script for all Inuit. “Our current writing systems were introduced through the process of colonization,” the organization writes on its website. “The unified Inuktut [the collective name for Inuit languages] writing system will be the first writing system created by Inuit for Inuit in Canada.” It remains to be seen what that script will look like.

3. Glagolitic

A tablet containing the Glagolitic script
The Baška tablet, which was made around the year 1100
Neoneo13, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

It’s widely believed that Glagolitic, the oldest known Slavic script, was invented by missionaries Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius around 860 CE in an effort to translate the Gospels and convert the Slavs to Christianity. The name Glagolitic stems from the Old Church Slavonic word glagolati, meaning to speak. Some of the symbols were lifted from Greek, Armenian, and Georgian, while others were entirely new inventions. Nowadays, academics are typically the only ones who can decipher the script, but some cultural institutions have made efforts to preserve its legacy. In 2018, the National and University Library in Zagreb launched an online portal containing digitized versions of Glagolitic texts. In addition to being a source of Croatian heritage and pride, the alphabet has also become an object of tourist fascination. Visitors can view monuments containing Glagolitic symbols along the Baška Glagolitic Path on the Croatian island of Krk. And in Zagreb, the capital city, it’s not hard to find gift shops selling merchandise adorned with Glagolitic writing. However helpful this may be to the tourism sector, it's no guarantee that more Croatians will want to start learning the script.

4. Mandombe

The Mandombe script
Moyogo, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

This African script is unusual for several reasons. For one, the Mandombe alphabet reportedly came to David Wabeladio Payi—a member of the Kimbanguist church in the Democratic Republic of Congo—in a series of dreams and spiritual encounters in the late ‘70s. One day, he was looking at his wall when he noticed that the mortar between the bricks seemed to form two numbers: five and two. He believed these were divine clues, so he set out to create a series of symbols based off those shapes. Eventually, he assigned the symbols phonographic meaning and turned it into an alphabet that could be used by speakers of the Kikongo and Lingala languages. Perhaps most remarkably, the pronunciation changes depending on how the symbols are rotated. “It’s one of about three writing systems in the world where that’s true,” Brookes says. Unlike most of the other alphabets on this list, Mandombe is growing in popularity rather than declining. However, because it’s primarily being taught in Kimbanguist schools and used only for religious texts, it will be a challenge to convince the rest of the population to start using it. Elsewhere in the country, the Latin alphabet is used (French is the official language). “What it’s up against is, in essence, exactly the same forces that a declining script is up against,” Brookes says. For this reason, many new alphabets can be considered endangered.

5. Ditema tsa Dinoko

In a similar vein, Ditema tsa Dinoko is also a minority script, and it's too new to tell if it will stick around. A team of South African linguists, designers, and software programmers invented this intricate, triangular-shaped alphabet in just the last decade in hopes of forging a single script that could be used by speakers of indigenous languages in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Because the symbols were inspired by artworks and beadwork designs that are typical of the region, the alphabet is also a celebration of culture. “One of the really interesting features of African alphabets is how deeply embedded they are in what we would call graphic design,” Brookes says. “Instead of imitating the shapes or structures or layout of other writing systems, such as our alphabet, they often start from a completely different point of view and draw on designs that are found in war paintings, weaving textiles, pottery, and all of those other available graphic elements.” The colors used in the alphabet aren't necessary to understand the script, but they hark back to the alphabet's artistic origins while also functioning as a kind of font. For instance, different writers may use different colors to give their text "a certain feel or emotional resonance," Brookes says.

6. Mandaic

The Mandaic script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

This ancient, mystic script dates back to the 2nd century CE and is still being used by some Mandaeans in Iraq and Iran. According to mythology, the language itself predates humanity, and the script was historically used to create religious texts. Charles Häberl, now an associate professor of Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Rutgers University, wrote in a 2006 paper that Mandaic is “unlike any other script found in the modern Middle East." And unlike most scripts, it has changed very little over the centuries. Despite its enduring quality, many of the speakers in Iraq have fled to other countries since the U.S. invasion in 2003. As these speakers assimilate into new cultures, it becomes more challenging to maintain their linguistic traditions.

7. Lanna

The Lanna script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

According to Brookes, the Lanna script was primarily used during the time of the Lanna Kingdom in present-day Thailand from the 13th century to the 16th century. It’s still used in some regions of northern Thailand, but faces stiff competition from the predominant Thai script. The word Lanna translates to "land of a million rice fields." The script is one of Brookes’s personal favorites as far aesthetics are concerned. “It is so extraordinarily fluid and beautiful,” he says. “They developed this script to indicate not only consonants, but then the consonants have vowel markings and other consonant markings and tonal markings both above and below the main letters, and so you have this amazingly joyous and elaborate writing system, and it’s like a pond of goldfish. Everything is just curving around and swimming in all these different directions.”

8. Dongba

The Dongba script
Courtesy of Aubrey Wang

Members of the Naxi ethnic minority in China’s Yunnan province have been using this colorful pictographic script for well over 1000 years. The pictures stand for tangible objects like mud, mountains, and high alpine meadows, as well as intangible concepts such as humanity and religion [PDF]. Historically, it was mainly used by priests to help them remember their ceremonial rites, and the word Dongba means "wise man." However, the script has undergone something of a revival in recent years, having been promoted by people working in the arts and tourism industries. It’s also taught in some elementary schools, and it remains one of the few pictographic scripts that’s still in use today. At the same time, Brookes says he's seen little evidence of efforts "to create a circumstance where the script is actually used in a functional, everyday fashion." With the predominant Chinese script looming large throughout much of the country, Dongba's days may be numbered.

9. Tibetan

A student writes the Tibetan script
China Photos/Getty Images

Some of the world’s alphabets and languages are endangered for political reasons. Tibetan is perhaps the best-known example of that. The Chinese government has cracked down on language instruction in recent years, with the aim of promoting Mandarin, the predominant language—although some have argued this policy comes at the expense of minority languages. In Tibet, many schools now conduct the bulk of their lessons in Mandarin, and Tibetan might be taught in a separate language course. Chinese officials put a Tibetan activist on trial in January 2018 for “inciting separatism”—partly because he criticized the government’s policies on Tibetan language education. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In general, “the story behind endangered alphabets is almost never a pleasant or cheerful one, so that’s the human rights side of it,” Brookes says.

10. Mongolian

The Mongolian script

Anand.orkhon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Some have likened the appearance of the traditional Mongolian script to a kind of vertical Arabic. The script traveled to Mongolia by way of a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs in the 1100s. Beginning with Genghis Khan, Mongol leaders used the script to record historic events during their reign. Later, when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite state, the country started using the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s, and the traditional script was largely cast aside. The traditional alphabet is still used in inner Mongolia and is returning to Mongolia, and the renaissance of Mongolian calligraphy has bolstered its usage to some degree. Nonetheless, it, too, remains endangered.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER