The study of place names and their origins, known as toponymy, can reveal a lot about human society as a whole. Did you know that almost every country in the world can place the origin of its name in one of only four categories? These are either a directional description of the country, a feature of the land, a tribe or ethnic group that lived there, or after an important person. Now, let’s see if the same thing applies to some of the United States.
There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding the name of Arizona, with two versions of the story circulating out there. One says that Arizona comes from the Basque aritz onak, which translates to ‘good oak’. The name is said to have been given due to the many oak trees in the area, which reminded the Basque settlers of their home country. The other version says that the word actually comes from the Spanish, who called the region Arizonac, which itself was a corruption from a word in the native Tohono O’odham language, spoken in the area. Ali-shonak loosely translates to ‘small spring’ and is in reference to the 1736 discovery of some rich silver veins located near some clear springs in the area. That silver didn’t last for long, but it made people aware of the existence of a place called Arizona.
After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, when the boundary between the US and Mexico was drawn at the Rio Grande and the Gila River, Arizona was part of New Mexico. But soon after its annexation, people living in what is now Arizona wanted a separate status from New Mexico. Several names were suggested for the new state, among which was also “Gadsonia.” It was proposed as a means to honor James Gadsden, the man who negotiated the purchase of land south of the Gila River. Nevertheless, in 1863, the name Arizona won out, and the rest is history.
Did you know that Maine is the sole state whose name contains just one syllable, and it’s the only one in the lower 48 to border only one other (New Hampshire)? Anyway, people aren’t entirely sure where its name comes from. The first time it appeared in writing was in 1622 when it was mentioned in a charter of the Council of New England as a province. The region was to be given to two English Royal Navy veterans, Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason. Captain Mason called his portion of the province New Hampshire, while Gorges proposed New Somerset for his. New Somerset was strongly disliked by King Charles I, who in 1639 issued another charter saying that it “shall forever hereafter be called and named the Province or County of Mayne and not by any other name or names whatsoever.” Nevertheless, some other names were being proposed in 1819, such as Yorkshire, Lygonia and Columbus, which were to be some other potential candidates for when the province became a proper state one year later as part of the Missouri Compromise.
As of 2001, the state legislature officially adopted the version in which the state draws its name from the no-longer-existing French province of Maine. Up until 1845, historians believed that the connection between the American and French regions was through King Charles’ wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. It was believed that the queen had once owned the French province, but subsequently discovered evidence shows that there was no connection. Furthermore, the king and queen married three years after the name Maine appeared in that previously mentioned charter. Another possible origin story says that Gorges proposed the name himself as a means to honor the village where his ancestors once lived in England. That village is now called Broadmayne, but in a 1086 manuscript, it appears under the name Maine – which in primitive Welsh or Brythonic meant ‘rock’. The most generally accepted version, however, is that the state name was based on a practical nautical term. As its coast is littered with many islands, sailors call the mainland simply “the main” or sometimes “Meyne” – so as to easily distinguish between it and the islands. This practice is still in use today within the Navy.
Of all the states, Oregon’s name may be the most hotly debated in regard to its origins. There are several theories out there, each of which has its own share of plausible arguments. The most probable among them, however, is that it originated with the Spanish. In fact, the first mention of the term orejón in relation with the region comes from a historical chronicle dated in 1598, written by Spanish explorers who made their way into the area at the time. The term translates to “big-eared” and may be in reference to the natives they encountered there. Another possible Spanish root is that the name comes from oregano, which grows in the southern regions of the state.
Others believe that it comes from oolighan – the Chinook word for the eulachon, a smelt fish found on the Pacific coast and a valuable food source for the native tribes that lived there. Another possible Native American connection would be with the Sioux tribe, who referred to the Columbia River as the “River of the West.” The Sioux may have borrowed some words from the Shoshone, another tribe living in what is now Nevada, among other places, and whose words for river and west are Ogwa and Pe-On respectively.
A different theory talks about the French and their word for hurricane – which is ouragan. It’s believed that French explorers in the area called the Columbia River ‘le fleuve aux ouragans’ or “Hurricane River” because of the strong winds blowing through its gorges. The first use of the word Ouragon appeared in a 1765 petition by Major Robert Rogers to the Kingdom of Great Britain where he asked for an overland expedition as part of the search for the so-called Northern Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Back then, people believed that the Columbia River began somewhere in Minnesota and flowed all the way to the Pacific. In an 18th century French map, the Ouisiconsink (Wisconsin) River was misspelled as “Ouaricon-sint” and broken into two lines, with the “-sint” written below. This incomplete map gave the impression that a river called Ouaricon was flowing westward – and could have possibly been the “River of the West” that spilled into the Pacific.
If you’ve ever felt that there’s a connection between Pennsylvania and Transylvania, then you’d be right. But the connection has nothing to do with vampires or the two lands themselves, but through the way they were named in the first place. The word Transylvania can be broken down into three parts as follows: trans (which is Latin for over or beyond), sylva (Latin for woods), and nia (which is a common suffix used for nouns and countries). In other words, Transylvania translates to ‘Lands beyond the forest’. Now, when it comes to Pennsylvania, the difference is with the word Penn. Pennsylvania was named in honor of British Admiral William Penn, father to William Penn, the founder of the state. William Penn (senior) actually loaned some money to King Charles II of England, and in return, the king gave his son a tract of land for him to found a Quaker settlement in America.
The younger Penn proposed the name Sylvania, but King Charles II wanted Penn’s name to be included – thus the name Pennsylvania (which translates to Penn’s Woodland). The story goes that William Penn felt embarrassed about it, fearing that people would think that he named it after himself, and petitioned the name be changed to New Wales. But the King’s secretary, who was a devout Christian from Wales, was completely against it – not wanting any connection between his homeland and the Quakers whatsoever.
Texas also goes by the name of The Lone Star State. This is as a way to represent and signify its former status as an independent republic, as well as its struggle for independence from Mexico. That lone star can still be found on the state flag, as well as its seal. But when it comes to its actual name of Texas, its origins can still be linked to the Spanish and by extension, Mexico. The name actually comes from the Caddo – a sedentary tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area around the time when the Spanish made it there.
The Caddo, as well as other tribes that lived in the region, all had the same word, or a similar variation of it, to refer to “friends” and “allies.” That word was teysha, which the Caddo also used as a greeting in the form of “hello, friend.” This greeting was similarly used on the Spanish, who later named the Natives after it. Over the years, that word went through several changes including Tejas, finally settling on Texas. Interestingly enough, Texas’ official motto is “Friendship.”
5. Rhode Island
Back in 1524, an Italian explorer by the name of Giovanni da Verrazzano, working in service for the French crown, was heading towards Florida as part of an expedition to find a way to the Pacific Ocean and establish a trade route with Asia. On his way there, he had to make a stop in North Carolina for some ship repairs. But once he was back on the move, he no longer stuck to the original plan and began heading north instead of south. He went past the Hudson River and Long Island, ending up in Narragansett Bay, which opens up in what is now the Rhode Island Sound. As he was exploring the many islands within and around the bay, he kept a record of his discoveries. In a letter he wrote back to France in July of that same year, he said that he “discovered an Ilande in the form of a triangle, distant from the maine lande 3 leagues, about the bignesse of the Ilande of the Rodes.” Now, Verrazzano originally named that particular island Luisa, in honor of the Queen Mother of France, but in his letter he described the island as being reminiscent of the Island of Rhodes in Greece.
For almost 100 years, his letter was the only description people had about that part of the New World. Over the following decades, his letter was translated and printed into Italian and English, further distributing the idea of a Greek-looking island in North America. Now, there has been some debate about which of the many islands Verrazzano was actually referring to in his letter, and for a time it was believed that it was Aquidneck Island – the largest in Narragansett Bay. Modern-day scholars believe that there’s a better chance that he was actually talking about Block Island, which is also part of the state of Rhode Island today, and better fits Verrazzano’s description. In 1637, Roger Williams, a political and religious leader who also founded the state of Rhode Island, established a settlement on Aquidneck Island. The name was officially given to the island in a 1644 declaration saying: “Aquethneck shall be henceforth called the Isle of Rodes or Rhode-Island.”
When it comes to state names, Idaho does seem like the kind that sounds Native American, doesn’t it? That’s the main reason why the name was chosen in the first place. Now, Idaho was originally given to the Colorado Territory at the suggestion of George M. Willing, an eccentric lobbyist and industrialist. He claimed that the word comes from the Shoshone language and meant something along the lines of “gem of the mountains” or “light on the line of the mountains.” And it seemed appropriate, given the fact that the name was to be chosen for a new territory around the Pikes Peak region, close to present-day Colorado Springs – a mountainous area. During the debate in the Senate, several other names were proposed, among which were Colorado, as well as Jefferson. But most senators seemed to favor Idaho instead. Luckily, Sen. Joseph Lane, from Oregon, brought to light the fact that no Indian tribe in the area has that word, or something resembling it. As it turned out, and what Willing himself reportedly confirmed some years later, is that he actually invented the word, as well as the meaning he gave for it. The name Colorado was then given instead.
This could have simply been the end of that story, but as it turns out, the word Idaho didn’t fade into obscurity. In fact, it gathered great momentum and vitality among the people living in those parts of North America. In 1861, the same year the Colorado Territory was created, Idaho County was also being established in the Washington Territory. It was christened after a steamship with the same name, which was launched on the Columbia River one year prior. With the whole affair seemingly forgotten, Idaho Territory was nevertheless created in 1863, which also included the previously mentioned Idaho County and other parts of the Washington Territory. Funnily enough, even well into the 20th century, many school books gave Willing’s version for the word Idaho as fact. In any case, there’s another theory circulating out there in regards with the name. Some people attribute it to the Plains Apache whose word for enemy is “ídaahe.”
Juan Ponce de León is a name that should sound at least somewhat familiar, even if you don’t really know what he was famous for – it just has that ring to it, right? Anyway, Ponce de León was a possible crewmember in Christopher Columbus’ 1493 voyage to the New Word – though nobody is really sure. A decade later, he served as governor of the eastern part of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic). During his time as governor in Hispaniola, he also explored the nearby island of Puerto Rico and became governor of that too. Following some rumors of other possible islands to the northwest of Hispaniola, Ponce de León received exclusive rights from the King of Spain to become governor for life on whatever lands he might discover in that region. In return, he was expected to finance the voyage and future settlements himself. On April 2, 1513, the three ships part of the expedition came across an island, or what they thought to be an island, and named it La Florida.
The name was chosen because of the incredibly verdant and flowering landscape, and because it was the Easter season, which the Spanish called Pascua Florida or Festival of Flowers. Nobody is really certain where they made their first landing in La Florida, but they stayed there for five days before they left. A second voyage took place in 1521 with the intention of colonizing the newly discovered lands. But before the colonists could establish the settlement, they were attacked by the native Calusa warriors. Ponce de León was severely wounded in the skirmish and the colonizing attempt was abandoned. Historians believe that he was hit by a poison-tipped arrow, and died in Cuba. Now, legends have it that he was actually looking for a rumored Fountain of Youth when he discovered Florida, and this is probably why his name is so familiar. Unfortunately, however, there was no mention of any such fountain in any documents at the time, and the story was only attached to him after his death. Furthermore, it’s also believed that he wasn’t the first European to set foot in Florida either. Spanish slavers looking for new prisoners may have made it there in the years prior.
The state of Delaware is named after the Delaware River. That’s it – that’s the whole story! Well fine, we’ll expand on this a little further. The river itself was first discovered by the Dutch in their attempt to find an alternative route to China in 1609. The leader of that expedition was Henry Hudson, an English navigator under the service of the Dutch East India Company. His discoveries along the East Coast ignited instead the Dutch colonization of North America, and not a new trade route to China. Both Dutch and Swedish settlers established themselves on the lower sections of the river.
Prior to the English expelling the Dutch from their New Netherland colony in 1664, the Delaware and Hudson Rivers were generally known as the South and North Rivers, respectively. After this, however, the North River was officially named after its discoverer, Henry Hudson, while the South River was named after the first governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas West 3rd Baron De La Warr. The South River may have been known to the locals as Delaware prior to the Dutch expulsion, though.
Nevertheless, this De La Warr title is pronounced the same as Delaware, but with a different spelling. Located in Sussex, England, the barony’s name has an Anglo-Norman origin. Now, there are several possibilities as to where this title actually draws it roots from. One possible connection would be with the French La Guerre, which translates to The War. It could also come from the Latin word ager which means field or land. Or from the Breton Gwern – which was a figure in Welsh tradition. The most plausible of these, however, is the French La Guerre – which would make the state of Delaware mean something along the lines of “Of the war.”
Did you know that some people are naming their kids after popular Game of Thrones characters? Well, naming people and places after fiction isn’t something new. In fact, California was named in the exact same manner. Its name was given by two Spanish sailors, Diego de Becerra and Fortun Ximenez, who landed on the southernmost tip of Baja California in 1533. The two were sent there by Hernán Cortés to claim that land on his behalf. The name was chosen based on a fictional island called California that appeared in a romantic novel at the time, written by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo in the early 16th century. Known as Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián), the novel mentions a mythical island located east of Asia and “very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.“
In the book, this island was ruled over by Calafia, a warrior queen who once led an army of women and a flock of mythical griffins from the island of California to aid a Muslim army battle against the Christians, who were defending Constantinople. Her name, and by extension the name of the fictional island, are based on the Arabic word Khalifa which is a religious state leader, and known as Caliph in English. The two Spanish navigators named the place California, thinking that the Baja California peninsula they landed on was an island. To be fair, we should also mention that some people believe that California actually comes from an indigenous phrase, kali forno, which means ‘high mountains.’ But equally as important is the fact that many other places and settlements around the world, including in South America, Europe, Australia, and the Philippines, are named California – something which makes the indigenous phrase being the actual origin seem highly unlikely.