Words can be enormously interesting! Alun has written several web articles about the origins of some very familiar English names and words.
Everybody knows the United States of America, and almost everybody knows most of the States by name. Even the citizens of other nations will often be familiar with the names of the 50 U.S states because they all feature so prominently in popular culture—in the movies of Hollywood, the classic titles of novels and American songs, and even the names of real people and fictional characters.
We have all heard of The Oregon Trail and Hawaii 5-0, Minnesota Fats and The Texas Rangers and Indiana Jones, not forgetting the Connecticut Yankee. Then there's also California Dreamin' and Kentucky Bluegrass and Tennessee Williams, the Rhode Island Red chicken and the Colorado Potato Beetle.(Sorry Colorado—I'm sure you're known for lots of good things besides a highly destructive potato eating beetle.) Oh, and there's Oklahoma! There's even a Dinosaur named after a state—Utahraptor—never mind the fact that it lived 125 million years before the state came into being, so maybe the state ought really to be named after the Dinosaur!
But where do the names of the states come from? They clearly have varied origins, some being taken straight from the language of Spanish explorers or from the English Motherland of much of modern America, and some owing their names to the native tribes and languages, whilst some . . . well, that is the point of this page, to chart the origins and meanings of the names of all of these 50 United States of America.
N.B: Please note, all of my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
The United States of America comprises an extensive landmass inhabited by numerous native tribes over thousands of years, and more recently colonised by the nations of Spain, Great Britain and France. As such the geographical and historical influences on the making of America have been very diverse. Fittingly, the 50 states of America reflect this diversity in their names, as demonstrated effectively by the map below.
It is perhaps only fair that the lion's share of the states should be named after the native American cultures who had lived in this part of the world for many millenia, though as far as etymology (understanding word origins) is concerned, that has unfortunately brought its own problems—the Indian tribes were many, with a multitude of verbal but unwritten languages and dialects, and with only hazy translations and phonetic interpretations for the European settlers to go on, (and often mis-translations or mis-interpretations).
So it is hardly surprising that the precise origins and meanings of many of these native state names have become lost in time, or perhaps were never really known in the first place. Most of course relate either to the tribes themselves, or to prominent features of the landscape such as rivers, lakes and mountains, and these features were also the elements of the New World which mattered most to European colonists eager to get their bearings and bring some sense to their mapping of the land.
The arrival of the Europeans also brought an influx of new names—the names of Kings and Queens were often commemorated by the colonising powers in the christening of 'new' lands, and so were the names of prominent figures given the task of establishing 'civilisation' in the New World. (Some of these were Latinised as this was still a major language of the educated classes, and the reference to Latin in the map below therefore reflects only the language etymology of the word, and not the colonising power).
A Brief Explanatory Note About American Tribes and Languages
During the compiling of this page, it rapidly became clear that the Native America which I had imagined was so simple—a few tribes (Sioux, Apache, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Cherokee and about a dozen others) distributed across the American continent—was far from being simple. The 'dozen or so' tribes turned out to be many hundreds that were in existence at the time of the Europeans' first contact. But the picture is far more complicated even than that. Some tribes had close associations, and the distinctions recognised by the Europeans were not necessarily the same as those recognised by the native Americans themselves. Some tribes divided as a result of disputes or united into confederacies at various times. And many tribes were known by several different names—names could only be phonetically interpreted by Europeans.
What's more, there existed at the time of settlement almost as many tribal languages as there were tribes—at least a couple of hundred. However, settlers did recognise certain similarities between some of the languages which suggested a common familial origin with subsequent evolution into distinct local dialects. Perhaps ten of these families of languages would be significant in the later naming of the American states, and some of the most important of these language families are listed below:
Algonquian: Spoken largely in the northeastern and east central states of America and in Canada, the Algonquian family of languages are associated with—among others—the Mahican, Massachusett, Delaware, Powhatan, Shawnee, Blackfoot, Illinois, and Ojibwe tribes. Further west, the Cheyenne speak a similar dialect, all incorporated in a larger language grouping called Algic.
Iroquoian: The Iroquoian languages were spoken by tribes in the Great lakes area and further south, including the Huron and Cherokee tribes.
Siouan: Siouan was the language family of tribes in the region of the American Great Plains, including the tribe of the same name—the Sioux. Also in this group are tribes such as the Quapaw, Kansa, Crow, and Dakotas.
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Uto-Aztecan: Still further west and—as the name suggests—extending down south into Mexico are the Uto-Aztecan languages, of which there are more than thirty, including the dialects spoken by the Shoshoni, the Ute, and the Comanches.
Athabascan: In the southwest is the language group of the renowned Apache and Navajo tribes, known as Athabascan. (Oddly, as can be seen in the map below, other languages of this family are spoken in the far north by Canadian tribes).
Origin of State Names
This list gives only brief explanations as to the possible origin and evolution of all state names. Further reading is referenced at the end.
The name Alabama appears to derive most directly from the Alabama River, which was named in turn for the local Alibamu or Alabama tribe. It is believed the name of the tribe is a compound phrase from the related Muskogean language of the Choctaw tribe, comprising 'albah' meaning 'herbs or vegetation', and 'amo' either meaning 'to gather', or 'to clear'. The Alabamas would therefore be described as 'the tribe of vegetation gatherers' or 'the tribe of thicket clearers' - very probably a reference to the fact that they were noted for their farming activities - which of course involved first clearing the ground of vegetation. 
The Aleuts are the native people of the Aleutian Islands and the extreme Northwest of the American continental mainland. 'Alaska' comes from the Russian translation of 'alaxsxaq' - an Aleutian word meaning 'the main land which the sea breaks against' - or as we may put it today, Alaska is the 'mainland', as opposed to the islands of the Aleuts.
The origin of the state name of Arizona is unknown for sure, but a couple of possibilities are put forward. A popular belief is that it derives from 'arid-zona' (dry region), but this easy explanation seems to bear no historical credence. Some others suggest that the name comes from 'aritz-ona', a Basque Spanish phrase meaning 'good oak', perhaps referring to a region of oak trees growing near the site of a big silver strike at Planchas de Plata in the 18th century. 
However, the favoured explanation seems to be that it comes from the O'odham language, and from the words 'ali' meaning 'little' and 'sona-g' meaning 'spring'. So 'Arizona' would mean 'little spring'. (interestingly, this may also still link indirectly to the 'good oak' theory, as the little spring of water would have enabled the growth of oak trees at Planchas de Plata. The O'odham speakers were native to the Sonoran Desert region of north Mexico and the states of Arizona and New Mexico, and their language has influences from Aztec Mexico.
A number of derivations have been put forward for this state name, but all relate to the tribal names of the native Americans who lived here. The favoured source seems to be the name used by Algonquian Illinois Indians to describe the Quapaw Indians of this part of America. They called them the 'Arkansa' meaning 'wind people'. (The wind featured strongly in the mysticism of many native tribes). The river on which the Arkansa lived became known as The Arkansaw. This was originally pronounced as it is spelled, but an alternative version which later became established had the name of the tribe pluralised as the 'Arkansas' with the 's' pronounced at the end. It seems eventually the state government decided on a compromise - hence the spelling would be Arkansas, but the 's' would be silent as in Arkansaw. (See also Kansas).
The state name of California may have one of the most unusual origins of any of the 50 United States. It most likely comes from a Spanish novel written in 1510 by Garcia Ordóñez de Montalvo. The novel was called 'Las Sergas de Esplandián', and featured the fictional Queen Calafia who ruled over a mythical Island called 'California', which was somewhere to the 'west of the Indies'. When Spanish explorers travelled west of the Caribbean, they began to use the name of this fictional island to refer to the new territory around the Baja Peninsula - originally thought to be an island. The name has survived as one of the very oldest European place names on the continent. 
A less romantic alternative is that the name was invented as a combination of the Catalan words 'cali' (hot) and 'forn' (oven), simply because explorers found the land to be 'as hot as an oven'. 
The name of Colorado comes from a Spanish word for 'reddish', and refers originally to the Colorado River, which early explorers described as being that colour. It's believed it used to be reddish-brown due to a build up of silt and sediment, though the colour has changed subsequent to the building of the Glen Canyon Dam.  The state name was officially adopted in 1861 at the suggestion of the first territorial governor, William Gilpin.
As often seems to be the case, it was a river - the most prominent and useful feature of any region for a pioneering settler, or for the native population - which gave this state its name. The Mahican Algonquian name for the region was 'Quinnihtukqut' which means 'beside the long tidal river', and the modern name, although spelled very differently, is a phonetically similar corruption of this word.
Sir Thomas West was the first Governor-General of Virginia in 1609, and one of the founders of Jamestown. He was a leading figure in persuading the original settlers to stay put, when in conflict with the native population and on the verge of quitting America. Sir Thomas also happened to be the 3rd Baron De La Warr (probably from the original French 'de la werre' or 'de la guerre', meaning 'of the war'). His name was subsequently given to the Delaware River and Bay, and also strangely to the local tribe who called themselves the Lenape, but who have since been known as the Delaware Indians.  Delaware is therefore, the only state which has given its name to the local tribe, rather than vice versa!
'Flora' of course is the Latin word for flowers, and 'Pascua Florida' is the Spanish Feast of Flowers - another name for Easter. It is believed that explorer Juan Ponce de León first landed here in 1513. It was Easter time when he arrived, so the region was named accordingly for the religious festival. 
In 1732, King George II signed a Royal Charter sanctioning the establishment of a new colony in a area close to the Savannah River. Settlers arrived early in 1733, and the region was subsequently named in honour of the King.
Captain Cook named this archipelago The Sandwich Islands in 1778 (after the Earl of Sandwich), but in 1819 the name Hawaii was chosen by the local King Kamehameha I. Why the name Hawaii was chosen is disputed, and no real evidence exists.
One theory is that the islands were named after the legendary Polynesian 'Hawaii Loa', who was reputed to have sailed from the South Pacific to discover the islands round about 400 AD. Three of the islands - Maui, Kauai and Oahu are also named after this legendary hero's children. However, the authenticity of the story is disputed
The second theory is that the islands are named after the traditional homeland of the Polynesians, known as Hawaiki or Hawaii - the words 'hawa' and 'ii' meaning 'homeland' and 'small' respectively.
Idaho has one of the most confusing of etymologies, and one which is inextricably linked to Colorado. It has long been believed by many that the name was just 'made up' by political lobbyist George M Willing. It seems that Willing took part in the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1859 and proposed the name of 'Idaho' for the territory in which Pikes Peak was located (present day Colorado), claiming that the word was Shoshone 'ee-da-how', for 'Sun (or gem) from the Mountains'. However, Willing later came up with an alternative explanation, claiming instead that he chose the name after a girl called Ida!
Most probably however, Idaho was actually chosen, not from a Shoshone word, or from a girl called Ida, but rather from the Plains Apache word for 'enemy'. 'Idaahé' was used to refer to the Comanches during territorial disputes between the two tribes in Southern Colorado. 
Although 'Colorado' eventually became the preferred name for the territory around Pikes Peak, the word 'Idaho' stuck in the public conscience and was later used as the name of a city - Idaho Springs - within Colorado State. Ultimately, when another new territory away to the northwest was established, the word 'Idaho' was chosen for its name.
The name of Illinois derives from the Illiniwek group of tribes who inhabited the region of the Upper Mississippi. 'Illinois' is the name given to the group by French explorers and is a translation from the Ottawa tribal name for the natives of this region. The word is variously translated from the Algonquian as 'tribe of superior men', or possibly 'normal speakers' (ie: people who speak the Algonquian language rather than a foreign tongue).
With so many states being named after Indian tribes or Indian phrases, perhaps it is right that one state with a particularly high native American population should simply be known as 'The Land of Indians'. It was christened by the US Congress with a Latinised version of the name when Indiana became the 19th State of the Union in 1816. (On the map above which shows state name origins, the name Indiana is therefore shown somewhat strangely as deriving from the Latin).
This state is named after the Ioway or Iowa tribe who lived in the region. However, as so often seems to be the case, the meaning of the tribe's name is uncertain. It's often said that the name of the tribe 'Iowa' means 'beautiful land', but this may have been wishful thinking on the part of the General Assembly who adopted the name. According to some others, 'Iowa' is actually a French adaptation of the Sioux 'ayuhwa', still referring to the local tribe, but less flatteringly as 'sleepy ones'.
Kansas is believed to come from a Sioux word for the Kaw people or ' Kansa', who lived in this region. Some suggest it means 'plum', but if so, the connotation seems rather obscure. The predominant view however is that the name means 'people of the south wind', or 'wind people', or 'small wind' or 'making a breeze near the ground', and it has clear links to the Algonquian name for the Quapaw tribe, the 'Arkansas'. Whatever, the truth, the general view seems to be that the derivation is something to do with the wind. (The wind had a mystical significance to the Kansa and played a part in their rituals).  European settlers first adopted the term to refer to the Kansas River, and then to the territory where the river was to be found.
Unfortunately, most American states have names of disputed etymology, and the name of Kentucky is one of the most disputed. Several theories are put forward. The first is that the word is of Iroquoian origin meaning 'on the prairie'. Alternative interpretations have ascribed the name to an Algonquian phrase for 'the bottom of the river' or the Shawnee tribal name for 'the head of the river'. Other translations have also been proposed. One strong theory has it that the word stems from the Iroquoian 'ken-tah-ten', meaning 'land of tomorrow' and that it refers to the territories south of the Ohio where the Wyandot Indians (Hurons) dreamed they 'would live in the future'. ie: in Kentucky. It has been difficult however to find any real explanation for any of these interpretations.
Whatever the truth, it seems likely that the name was first applied to the Kentucky River, before it was bestowed on the territory which became Kentucky State.
In 1682 the French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle sailed down the Mississippi to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico and laid claim for France the territories through which the great river and its tributaries flowed.  He chose the name of 'Louisiane' for these territories in honour of his King, Louis XIV. However, the Spanish version of Louisiane was Luisiana, and the modern state name seems to be an amalgamation of the two.
Of all the States of the Union, the origin of Maine is perhaps the least certain, with the most widely disparate theories. The name is first recorded from 1622 in the granting of land in a large area of New England to Sir Ferdinand Gorges and Captain John Mason, two of the founders of the first colony in Maine. (See also New Hampshire).
One suggestion is that Sir Ferdinand chose the name for his land after his ancestral home in the English village of Broadmayne. However, sometime after the name first appeared in respect of this region of America, Sir Ferdinand was also to propose the alternative name of 'New Somerset' for the province, rather than Maine or Mayne or Broadmayne. So it is not clear if this was genuinely his preferred choice.
Another theory is that the name may refer to Henrietta Maria, the queen of Charles I of England, who had also laid claim to the province of Mayne in France.
Yet another possibility is that the term 'Maine' for this coastal state may have been used simply to distinguish the 'mainland' from the coastal islands.
Whatever the truth of any of these theories, and despite the alternative suggestion of 'New Somerset', a decree by Charles I of England in 1639 stated that it '(the territory) shall forever hereafter be called and named the Province or County of Mayne and not by any other name or names whatsoever'.
(Even that definitive pronouncement wasn't in fact the end of the matter, as debate over the name of the region continued until statehood was achieved in the 19th century). 
Maryland may share with Maine a link to Charles I's Queen, but in this case it is a more direct and definite link. Maryland is named in honour of Henrietta Maria. Charles I signed a Royal Charter on 20th June 1632 for a new territory in the Americas, and Caecilius Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, who was to become the first Governor, chose to name the new territory after Charles's Queen, 'Terra Maria' (in Latin) or 'Maryland' in English.
The name of this state is taken directly from the local Algonquian Massachusett tribe, and was first applied to Massachusetts Bay. It has long been considered that the name refers to their tribal home - 'mass' meaning 'big', 'achu' meaning 'hill' and 'et' meaning 'the place of''. So the whole name means 'the place of the big hill'. It is usually thought that 'big hill' refers to the Great Blue Hill, a few miles inland from the Bay.
However, according to some authorities, the word for 'big' in Algonquian is not 'mass' at all, but 'miss'. 'Mass' may have been the word for 'arrowhead'. So unless the original spelling of Massachusetts is in error, perhaps the name of the state should translate as 'Arrowhead Hill'. (See also Mississippi and Missouri).
Again the origin of this name is uncertain. The most common view is that Michigan derives originally from the Ojibwe Algonquian 'meshi-gami' via a French interpretation, and it means 'Great Lake'. If so, quite clearly the state was named after the lake now called Lake Michigan.
The counter view is that Michigan derives from a Chippewa Indian word 'majigan' and referred to a clearing in the forest near to the lake. If this is believed, then Lake Michigan was named after this clearing in the 1670's, and subsequently the state name followed.
Minnesota comes from the Dakota Sioux Indian word 'mnisota' usually translated as meaning 'cloudy or milky water'. It refers originally to the Minnesota River.
This state derives its name from an Ojibwe Algonquian word meaning 'Great River', and in this case, the river in question is quite obvious - probably the one state in which the river remains even more famous than the state itself. The Indian phrase was variously recorded as 'misi-ziibi' or 'miss sepi'. (We saw under 'Massachusetts' that 'miss' can mean 'large' or 'great', and this word of course also affords us the stem of the next state, Missouri.) The name Mississippi was officially adopted for the territory around the eastern bank of the river in 1798.
Incidentally, the name is often thought to mean 'Father of Waters' but this comes from a phrase used by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War. He was writing about the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi by Ulysses S Grant, but although he was undoubtably refering to the River Mississippi, the phrase was one of his own choosing, and it was not a literal translation of the native term. 
The word 'Missouri' comes from the Missouri Sioux tribe, and has sometimes been translated as 'muddy water'. However as we have already seen 'miss' can best be translated as 'large', and the consensus is that 'missouri' means 'town (or people) of the large canoes', and relates to the fact that the Missouri people were noted among neighbouring tribes for the large dugout canoes which they used. 
It's something of a relief to find an American state name with a nice straight-forward, unequivocal derivation, although it is not known who first gave the state this name. 'Montana' is Spanish for 'mountain'.
This is yet another state which owes its name to the river which flows through its land, albeit in this case the river in question was later to undergo a name change of its own, when the Nebrathka (Nebraska) River became the Platte River. The Oto Indian word 'nibraske' (various spellings) means 'flattened water' or 'broad water'. It is believed this referred indirectly to the great plains of this part of the country, which of course are very low lying. When the river flooded its banks, a broad flat plain of water would result.
The name was suggested for the territory by Lieutenant John Fremont, charged with mapping the territory, and the name was approved in 1844 by the Government. 
Like Montana, Nevada has a mercifully simple derivation. It comes from the Spanish for 'snow-capped', and was first applied to the Sierra Nevada, or 'snow-capped mountains'. It became the name of the territory, and ultimately the state name, on 2nd March 1861.
- NEW HAMPSHIRE:
Captain John Mason, a former Governor of Newfoundland, has already been mentioned once in this discourse in the section about Maine. In the same charter which allocated the territory of Maine to Sir Ferdinand Gorges, Captain Mason was granted money by the King of England for adjacent land in New England which he chose to call after the English county of Hampshire, where he had once lived, and of which, presumably, he had fond memories. Sadly, Captain Mason never got to see his 'New' Hampshire, as he died in England soon after the grant was confirmed. 
- NEW JERSEY:
Just like New Hampshire, New Jersey is named after the one-time home of the state's co-founder. In this case, the co-founder was Sir George de Carteret.
On 24th June 1664 King Charles II granted a charter to develop a large area of the New World to his brother James, the Duke of York, but the Duke soon passed on a part of the territory to his friends Sir George and Sir John Berkeley. Sir George decided to call this part either New Jersey or New Caesarea (the original Roman name for Jersey). It was New Jersey which stuck. Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands which lie just 14 miles off the coast of France, but which have been a British dependency since the Norman conquest of 1066. The name was chosen because Sir George was born here, and as an adult he'd also governed the island. (See also New York and Pennsylvania).
- NEW MEXICO:
The Nation of Mexico takes it's name from Mexico City, established in 1524 by Spanish conquistadors on the ruins of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. But the origins of the name beyond that are uncertain. It may be derived from an Aztec God, 'Mextli', (various spellings) or from 'Mexihca', the word used by the Aztecs to describe themselves. One other possibility is that it comes from the word 'Metztli' (moon), which was combined with 'xitcli' (navel) to describe the location of Tenochtitlan on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco as the 'Navel in the Moon'. 
However, although Mexico City existed under Spanish rule in the 16th century, the entire colony of what would one day become the Nation of Mexico was known as 'New Spain'. Explorations north of the territory of New Spain and the Rio Grande were undertaken by the Spanish during the mid-16th century, and the first European settlements in this region were then established. One explorer - Francisco de Ibarra - coined the name of 'Nuevo Mexico' for this new province; a name officially adopted in 1598 when the first Spanish Governor was appointed. 
In the early 19th century the Mexicans achieved independence from Spain, and the Nation of Mexico was born. Nuevo Mexico remained a province of Mexico until the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, when it became American territory and the name was anglicised. In 1912 'New Mexico' became the 47th state.
- NEW YORK:
We have already seen in a previous section, how King Charles II of England granted land in the North Eastern Americas to his brother James, the Duke of York in 1664, and how some of this territory was then passed on to two of James's friends to eventually become the State of New Jersey. The remainder of Charles's charter gift however, was retained by James. (See also Pennsylvania).
The legitimacy of any of this is debatable because at the time this was all disputed territory, and the Dutch claimed it as a colony called New Netherland. However, later that same year, English forces successfully invaded, and New Netherland was then renamed New York after the Duke (not therefore directly after the City Of York or County of Yorkshire in England). At the same time a major trading post on the Hudson River called New Amsterdam, was captured and later developed as New York City.
And James Duke of York himself, went on to become King James II of England.
- NORTH CAROLINA:
The 17th century was a time when the Americas were being rapidly colonised and charters and grants for the colonisation of each part of the settled country were being issued, and we have already seen several instances of this. In 1629 King Charles I of England was particularly busy with this process. Thus a large region on the eastern seaboard (including most of what is now the State of Georgia) was given to his Attorney General Sir Robert Heath, and named in the king's honour, using the Latinised version of 'Charles', which was 'Carolina'. Initially there was just one territory called Carolina, and it was not until 1729 that the two parts of Carolina became separate territories. Statehood followed in 1789.
- NORTH DAKOTA:
The name of the two states of Dakota come from the Dakota people who live there. The Dakotas are part of the Sioux tribe, and in the Siouan language, 'Dakota' is believed to mean 'friend' or ally. When the region including present-day North Dakota was made a territory of the United States in 1861, it was named for the tribe, and residents chose to retain the name when the territory was divided into North and South States upon the admission into the Union on 2nd November 1889.
The general consensus is that this name - like that of Mississippi - comes from a native phrase meaning 'great or large river'. According to a United States Indian agent, the Huron (Wyandot) Iroquoian name for the river which passed through their territory in the northeast of America, was 'O-hii-zuu' pronounced 'O-he-o', meaning 'something great' perhaps used in conjunction with another word meaning 'river'. 
A second suggestion is that 'ohiyo' is an Iroquoian word meaning 'good river'. Effectively this may not be so different - a 'good river' after all, was one which was large enough to be navigable  so perhaps the phrases for 'great or large' and for 'good' could quite easily be interchanged in the description of a river.
'Ohio' is also sometimes translated as 'beautiful river', but it seems that this is almost certainly wrong. The error comes as a result of an 18th century French explorer who recounted its Indian name as 'Ohio', and at the same time called it 'a beautiful river', but it seems that no direct connection between the two phrases was probably intended.
This state's name was first suggested by a Choctaw Indian Chief with the English name of Allen Wright in 1866. It was intended to be the name of a large expanse of territory which was the home of several tribes of Indians and it derives from two Choctaw Indian words meaning 'red people'. 'Okla' or 'ukla' means 'people', 'tribe' or 'nation', and 'homa' or 'huma' means 'red'. Effectively therefore, the state name - like the state name of Indiana - signified that this was generic Native American territory. It wasn't a name used by the Indian tribes themselves, but it did become the popular name of the territory in 1890, and eventually the title of the 46th state in 1907. 
Oregon, like Maine, has one of the least certain derivations of any of the 50 American states. However, it is generally accepted that an English army officer called Major Robert Rogers first used the term 'Ouragon' as the name of a region in northwest America when he petitioned King George III to provide money for an expedition to find the much sought after 'Northwest Passage'. Uncovering the source of the name 'Ouragon' as used by Rogers is the problem.
The favoured suggestion is that the word comes from an error in translating the name of the Wisconsin River ('Ouisiconsink') on an early 18th century French map.
A second, recently promoted possibility is that the word 'oolighan' meaning 'fish grease' may be the origin of 'Oregon', as this was a key substance traded by the local Indians.
Another recent suggestion is that Rogers took the name from 'wauregan' or 'olighin' - two Algonquian words roughly translated as 'good' or 'beautiful'.
Yet other tempting suggestions for Oregon's name include derivation of the name from 'oregano', or from 'Aragon', but for these there is no significant evidence whatsoever, other than the similarities of the words. 
The federal government created Oregon Territory on 14th August 1848. The area of the new jurisdiction included the present-day states of Washington, Idaho, and also western Montana, as well as Oregon, and although these other areas were soon to be hived off from the Territory, a part remained to become Oregon State in 1859.
Pennsylvania was named after Admiral Sir William Penn to whom the territory was granted as part of the same charter signed by Charles II which saw New York and New Jersey signed over to James Duke of York. James, of course, was the King's brother, but in Penn's case the reason for the grant would seem to be in payment of a large debt owed by the king. The full name of the state means 'Penn's Woods'. 
- RHODE ISLAND:
The derivation of Rhode Island is rather unusual. There appear to be two explanations for the name, though neither relate to native American languages, or have very much to do the naming and granting of territories in honour of the kings and queens of Europe or their most illustrious citizens.
One possibility is that Dutch explorer Adrian Block named the territory 'Roodt Eyland' meaning red island' because of the distinctive red clay on the coast, and that this was later anglicised.
The second possibility relates to Italian explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano, who remarked in a letter dated 8th July 1524, that an island just off the coast (probably Block island, named for the aforementioned Dutchman) resembled the Greek island of Rhodes.
- SOUTH CAROLINA:
Named in honour of King Charles I, Carolina (see also North Carolina) was separated into two territories in 1729. It was however not until 1788 that South Carolina became a recognised state of the union. It's neighbour to the north followed one year later.
- SOUTH DAKOTA:
The two States of Dakota, as we have already seen, were named for the Indian tribe after the Sioux word for 'friend'. South Dakota and North Dakota were recognised as separate states in 1889.
The most common belief is that the name of this state derives from a Cherokee village called Tanasqui. It seems a Spanish explorer called Captain Juan Pardo was travelling through this region in 1567, and Tanasqui was one of the villages through which he passed. Sometimes 'Tanasqui' is written as 'Tanasi', but in fact Tanasi was the name applied to a village encountered by a later band of European settlers, and it is not at all clear if the two villages were one and the same. Neither village location was accurately recorded, though some suggest that one was in modern day Polk County and the other was in Monroe County. And these are by no means the only villages of similar name recorded in the region; about 30 different spellings have been uncovered, including Tunasse, Tannassy, Tunissee, Tenasee, Tennesey, Tennecy, and Tenesay, all or some of which may have been the same village. The modified name of Tennessee was first applied by European settlers to the Tennessee River, before being used for the territory and it became the official name of the state when Tennessee joined the Union in 1796.
As to the meaning of the word, Pardo himself said that the word had no meaning but was just a village name. Others however have attempted to figure out an origin. Local historian Samuel Cole Williams believed the word meant 'the bend of a river'. Others claim the name is originally of Creek Indian origin and means 'meeting place'. 
'Texas' almost certainly comes from the Hasinai Indian Caddo word 'teysha' (various spellings including texias and techas) meaning 'friend' or 'friends', and it referred to people of their own tribe, or possibly to all tribes who were allied against their enemies - the Apaches. The term was subsequently used by Spanish explorers to greet members of any friendly tribe. Texa was the Spanish translation with 'texas' as the plural, and the notion of a Land of Texas was already in place by the mid 17th century.
There are other possible translations of the Caddo word, including 'Land of Flowers' or 'Paradise', but these appear to have no first hand evidence to back them up from the days of the pioneers. 
There is little doubt that the name of this state comes from the Ute tribe, though it is more dubious as to whether the term was their own designation for themselves. More probably it is a term derived from the Apache 'yudah' or 'yuttahih' and means 'those who live further up in the mountains'. But which tribe living higher in the mountains? According to some the Apache term referred to the Navajo, but Europeans thought it might refer to someone who lived still higher. When they eventually encountered another tribe higher up in the White Mountains, they called them the Utes, after a phonetic translation of the Apache term. 
The obvious translation of 'Vermont' is from the French 'monts verts', meaning the 'green mountains'. This seems straightforward enough because there is a range of the Appalachians known as the Green Mountains which do indeed extend into the State of Vermont. However the derivation is not quite as clear cut as this. It is said that a Dr Samuel Peters originally named the land in 1763, as he stood on the top of a mountain near Killington, surveying the region from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain. But this story is thought to be apocryphal, and not literally true.
It is indeed very likely that the Green Mountains do provide the source of the name, but maybe not in such a direct manner. More likely 'Vermont' was coined to commemorate the 'Green Mountain Boys' a rebel group led by Ethan Allen, who operated in this area in the 1760s. They were formed to defend territory in the Green Mountains at a time when New York Province was attempting to control the region against the wishes of many of the locals. They eventually became the state militia. 'Vermont' was proposed for the state name by Dr Thomas Young, a Pennsylvania statesman, and was chosen on 30th June 1777. 
The east coast of America around Virginia was one of the most extensively visited regions when the ships of England first began to explore the potential of this part of the world in the 16th century. Sir Walter Raleigh travelled this way in 1584. In view of the habit of honouring the king or queen of the mother country, it is no surprise that the entire coastal area (between the present day states of Maine and South Carolina), was named Virginia for Queen Elizabeth I, or 'The Virgin Queen' as she was known, due to the fact that she never married and never bore children. The first permanent English settlement in America was established at Jamestown in 1607 in this land. Even though much of the territory was later hived off into separate states, a part remained as Virginia (including West Virginia) and it became the 10th state of the Union on 25th June 1788.
Although many American states settled in the early days of European colonialism were named for Heads of State. Washington has the distinction of being the only American state named for a home grown leader - but even then, it was only the result of a last minute name change. Following the establishment of the extensive Territory of Oregon in 1848, it wasn't long before moves were underfoot to break up the territory. 27 settlers at Cowlitz Landing in 1851 petitioned for one part between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel to be called Columbia. This new territory was sanctioned two years later, but with a change of name. Instead of Columbia, Congress decreed the new territory should be called 'Washington' in honour of the nation's first president. Washington was admitted to the Union on November 11, 1889, and became the 42nd state. 
- WEST VIRGINIA:
The first explorations of Virginia and its settlement by English pioneers, and the choice of the name has already been outlined above. During the next two centuries various parts of this large territory were sold or gifted and became separate states, but the advent of the American Civil War saw the last big split when the state seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy. The western portion of Virginia had different ideas, and remained within the Union to become the 35th State of West Virginia in 1863. Virginia itself was readmitted to the Union in 1870.
It seems that the name of Wisconsin is the result of a series of misinterpretations of pronunciation and spelling, and stem originally from the travels of Jacques Marquette and his fur trapper companion Louis Joilet in 1673. They were exploring across America in the company of various tribes including the Menominee, Kickapoo, Mascouten and Miami Indians in the region of Green Bay and the Upper Fox River. A long journey across dry land eventually took them to a tributary of the Mississippi. This tributary was referred to as 'Meskonsing' by Jacques Marquette, but this was subsequently spelled on a map compiled by his companion as 'Misconsing'. But just one year later French explorer La Salle misread the flowery writing of the letter 'M' as 'Ou', and thus for the next 150 years 'Ouisconsin' became the most accepted spelling.
In the early 19th century the region came under U.S Government control and on 1st February 1830, the Anglo-American phonetic translation of the French 'Ou' with 'W' was first used in a House of representatives document, so Ouisconsin became Wisconsin. A prominent Governor strongly advocated further Americanisation of the name to 'Wiskconsan' but it was 'Wisconsin' which eventually became the standard spelling of the tributary and the state, and was officially sanctioned on 4th July 1836 when this became an official territory.
The precise derivation of Marquette's original 'Meskonsing' remains disputed however. Translations such as 'Stream of a Thousand Isles' and 'Gathering of Waters' or 'Grassy Place' have been put forward, but without much supportive evidence. By far the most likely derivation seems to relate to the colour red, and this was Marquette's own belief. There was an Ojibwe word 'miskwasiniing' which may have meant 'red-stone place'. But it was Miami Indians who first used a word sounding like this to Marquette, and the phrase was taken as meaning 'the river that meanders through a red area' - possibly the red sandstone bluffs of the Wisconsin Dells (orangy red sandstone is a feature of the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, where erosion has laid bare the rock). Subsequently the local dialect seems to have died out when the Miami vacated the area, and the last native speakers died in the 1960s.
The last of the 50 states of America, alphabetically speaking, once again owes its derivations to the native languages of the country. But it seems that the name of this western state comes - not from the west, but from the east of America. The Delaware Indians had two words 'mecheweami' (many spellings) and 'ing' meaning 'the great plains' or possibly 'alternating mountains and valleys' and a phonetic translation of this was used to name the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. Then the name of the valley became nationally famous through an 1809 poem called 'Gertrude of Wyoming'.
When a new territory in the American west was to be established in 1868, from part of Dakota, Utah and Idaho, a number of possible names were put forward, mainly related to local tribes such as 'Cheyenne', 'Shoshoni', 'Arapaho' and 'Sioux' as well as 'Platte', 'Big Horn', 'Yellowstone', 'Sweetwater' and 'Lincoln'. Ohio Congressman J.M Ashley had proposed the name 'Wyoming' in 1865, and this was the name which was eventually approved for the new territory.
Summarising the 50 State Names
Reading this list makes it possible to decipher the history of America as it happened. We have seen how the early European explorers—the Spanish in the south and west, and the English and French in the east—first colonised this country, made contact for good or bad with the native population, and then slowly ventured inland to the heart of America. Communication with the tribes was obviously difficult, confused, and often the words spoken were misunderstood. It was, of course, important to chart the territory and name the major features—the mountains and the lakes to make some sense of it, and above all, the rivers, to make it navigable. And with such a large country to explore, it also made it more manageable to divide up the land first into territories and colonies, and then into statehood.
Compiling this long list has proved both unsatisfactory and frustrating, and yet also rewarding, in equal measure. It has proved unsatisfactory and frustrating because even in such a modern, well-documentated nation as the United States of America, it has proved impossible to give more than a brief overview, with no clear conclusions as to the origins of so many of the state names. If you wish to research a particular state name in rather more detail, I urge you to consult the references below or check out official state sites online.
But uncovering the information has also been rewarding for what it tells us about America. In the naming of the states, both the very ancient and diverse tribes and tribal languages of the Native Americans, as well as the extraordinary cultures of the new European Americans, would be taken into account by the settlers. Therefore, the origins of the names of the 50 States of America IS in a very real sense, the history of America.
- The Origins of US State Names - alphaDictionary (A general reference)
- List of U.S. state name etymologies - Wikipedia (A general reference)
- Origin of State Names - Factmonster (A general reference)
- 1] Alabama Department of Archives and History
- 2] Naming Arizona
- 3] Origin of the name California - Wikipedia
- 5] Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr - Wikipedia (Delaware)
- 7] George M. Willing - Wikipedia (Idaho)
- 8] Kansas and Kansans
- 9] Catholic Encyclopaedia : Louisiana
- 11] Mississippi - YourDictionary.com
- 12] State Archives Missouri History FAQ
- 13] Etymology (Nebraska)
- 14] John Mason - Factmonster (New Hampshire)
- 15] Colonial New Jersey
- 16] Mexico - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- 17] New Mexico - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- 19] American Indian Studies - Ohio
- 20] Chronicles of Oklahoma
- 21] Oregon - TvWiki, the free encyclopedia
- 22] Pennsylvania - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- 23] Tennessee's Name
- 24] Texas, Origin of Name
- 25] Utah
- 26] Vermont History: The Name
- 27] Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History
- 29] Welcome to the State of Wyoming
© 2011 Greensleeves Hubs
I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun
slick magic on May 21, 2020:
yay i loved it so much .
bashisto the man on February 17, 2019:
I like u so much for your adivase
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on February 06, 2015:
Missile Gulle ; Cheers very much for visiting this page and commenting. I really hope that one day you do get the chance to visit America, and some of its varied 50 states Missile Gulle.
But, for what it's worth, all countries have their own unique appeals, and I would really like one day to visit your country of the Philippines! :)
Missile Gulle on February 05, 2015:
thanks for the resources :) i enjoy reading even though that i am a from the Philippines. hope that i can go to the united states someday. godbless
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on January 01, 2012:
Thank you very much R Talloni for your visit and comment. Cheers also for linking this page to one of your hubs. That's much appreciated.
RTalloni on December 31, 2011:
Great study to use as a reference and springboard. Linking to one of my Flag Day hubs if you have no objection. Thanks!
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on December 05, 2011:
Thankyou sweetie. It took a bit more effort than I had anticipated, trying to unravel all the confusing linguistics! But I'm glad I completed it, because it is interesting I think to discover how places get their names.
I appreciate your nice comments. Alun
sweetie1 from India on December 05, 2011:
Hi Greensleeves, wow what an interesting and informative hub, I can see how much effort you must have put in this hub. It was nice to read how various American states got their names.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on November 29, 2011:
Thank you Steve for visiting and commenting! I guess Washington is one of the slightly more obvious state name origins! (Though as a child I remember being confused as to why Washington D.C wasn't in Washington State).
Certainly the origin of famous American city names would make for an interesting page - names like Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, Buffalo - clearly very diverse origins there!)
I appreciate your visit.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on November 29, 2011:
Thank you BWD316 for that really nice comment, and it's much appreciated that you have linked the page to your geography blog. Thanks so much for that.
I must admit I know the names of the states of America better than I know all the counties in my own home country of the United Kingdom!
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on November 29, 2011:
Thanks Derdriu for writing such a nice comment. It was an eye-opener for me discovering just how complex the tribal picture was, and how confusing the naming of the states was - the page would have to be ten times longer to cover all the detail, and even then conclusions would be hazy. But such evocative names!
I learned the 50 states as a child when I went with my parents on a holiday, which was also a business trip for my father. As such he had to make stopovers in several states across America. we hired a Winnebago (named for yet another tribe) and crossed America, taking in about 20 states. (I can't remember all 50 alphabetically though - I have to recite them region by region, starting with New England)
As for the capital cities - that would take me about 20 seconds to complete all that I know, because unfortunately I only know a handful. Maybe that should be the next thing I research!
Derdriu, I am indebted to you for your lovely comments and loyal support for my writings.
Steve Lensman from Manchester, England on November 29, 2011:
Excellent work Greensleeves, lots of fascinating facts here. The only name origin I knew for sure was Washington! :)
Now you'll have to do one on the famous US cities and how they got their names. I know a few of those. :)
Voted Up and Usefui
Brian Dooling from Connecticut on November 29, 2011:
Awesome Hub! It caught my eye because i'm technically an American Geographer, with a B.S. in Geography and currently working on my Masters. Great job, however i'm sad to say that many American's do not know the 50 States! and even fewer can name all 50 in less than 3 mins! this hub is filled with great information, Voted up and sharing your article on a geography blog of mine!
Derdriu on November 29, 2011:
Alun: What a compellingly written, logically organized and thoroughly researched article on etymology! It is great learning fun to read a precisely articulated and profoundly researched presentation such as this. It is especially refreshing the way in which you give attention to all the different possible inputs on the evolution and finalization of a name: native American (such diversity is hidden behind such a monolithic term) and European settler. It is most impressive the way in which you footnote your sources so agreeably, with links to the online source for those who like to go to the information authority. It is particularly welcome the way in which you look to native American origins. From my unsuccessful investigations along that vein for my series on fishes, I know how difficult it is to track that sort of information down.
Thank you for sharing, voted up, etc.,
P.S. How long does it take you to recite the list of U.S. capital cities?