United States Name Origins: European Roots and Made-up Names

Wednesday, June 226 min read

The names of our 50 states are as diverse as their inhabitants and histories. While the exact etymology of these state names gets muddied at times, they generally fall into two schools, split nearly down the middle: derivations of Indigenous languages, and references to the Europeans who fought over and settled the lands. Take some time to check out the states with Native American roots, and let’s learn more about the other 26 state name origin stories.


California’s name comes from a Spanish romance novel published in 1510 by Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, titled Las Sarges des Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián). In the novel, Queen Califa rules over an island populated only by women who made tools and weapons out of gold. When Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés landed in what is now known as Baja California, he was reminded of the story of Califa’s land and the name “California” was put on Spanish maps in the 1500s. Where did Montalvo get his inspiration? Likely the Arabic word Khalif or Khalifa, which means successor, but specifically refers to a head of state or leader in Islam.


Like California, the Spanish influenced Colorado’s name. It breaks down to “the color red,” and refers to the distinctive color of the Colorado River due to the abundance of red sandstone soil in the region.


Delaware is named for a body of water, though the word isn’t derived from another language. In 1610, explorer Samuel Argall named the Delaware River and Bay after the governor of Virginia, Thomas West, who was also known as Lord De La Warr. The state is also known by its nickname, the “First State” because it was the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution on December 7, 1787.


Like California and Colorado, Florida takes its name from its Spanish roots. When explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on the peninsula in April 1513, he was struck by the beauty of the lush landscape. He decided to call it “Florida” after the Spanish celebration Pascua Florida, meaning “flowering Easter” or “Feast of the Flowers.”


Like many other states, Georgia borrows its name from the British monarchy. Founder James Oglethorpe decided to call it “Georgia” in 1732, when England’s King George II demanded the 13th colony be named after him. The -ia suffix comes from Greek, meaning “state of.”


Idaho may sound like it was derived from Indigenous language, but it’s actually completely made up. In the early 1800s, a mining lobbyist claimed it meant “gem of the mountains” in Shoshone and tried to pitch it for the region that now contains Idaho and Colorado. Congress caught on and decided to go with “Colorado” for the majority of the area, but eventually dubbed the remaining territory “Idaho” in 1863.


This one could possibly go on our list of Indigenous-inspired names, as well. French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle led an expedition down the Mississippi River in the 1780s and claimed territory for France. He named it after the Indigenous Illiniwok tribe in the area, but spelled it “Illinois.” Congress kept the name when Illinois became a state in 1818, but what’s more American than completely changing the French pronunciation of a word? (The American pronunciation is “Ill-ih-NOY” and the French would have been something like “Ill-in-WAH.”)


The roots for Indiana are extremely simple – it comes from the English word “Indian,” though as we know, the native people of the Americas weren’t Indian at all. The English took over the territory after the French lost the French and Indian War in 1763, and tacked on the Latin suffix -a meaning “land of the.”


Louisiana also borrows its name from a European regent, King Louis XIV of France. Like Illinois, it was named by the French explorer Cavelier. When Thomas Jefferson acquired the land in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, the name stuck.


The origins of Maine’s name are very murky. While some believe it was named by English Royal Navy veterans Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason, perhaps to distinguish the “mainland” from the islands along the coast, it’s also the name of a province in France…or perhaps a village in England. The Maine legislature settled the matter in 2001 by adopting a resolution stating the name came from the French province.


Maryland’s another one for the royals; the territory was a gift from English King Charles I to his French-born Queen Henrietta Maria, better known as Queen Mary. When King Charles gave Lord Baltimore the charter to establish the colony in 1632, he did so only under the condition that it be named in his wife’s honor.


The Spaniards are responsible for Montana, as well, which comes from the Spanish word for mountain — montaña. Interestingly enough, Montana’s average elevation of only 3,400 feet makes it the lowest of all the Rocky Mountain States.


While most of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is located within California, Congress took inspiration from this collection of peaks when the territory needed a name in 1859 (and when it became a state in 1864). Spanish settlers were inspired by the range's snowy mountaintops — Sierra Nevada means “snow covered” in Spanish.

New Hampshire

It wasn’t named for the monarchy, but there is British inspiration in “New Hampshire.” Puritan John Mason founded the Province of New Hampshire in 1629 and named it after the county of Hampshire in England. Literature lovers will appreciate that it was the home of both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

New Jersey

New Jersey's name comes from the English Channel island of Jersey, birthplace of Sir George Carteret, one of the two men to whom the land was given by King Charles II in 1664. The other original owner of New Jersey was John Berkeley, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton, but he had financial troubles and sold his holdings to the Quakers in 1674.

New Mexico

This one’s pretty self-explanatory — it comes from the Spanish Nuevo Mexico, which is what the Spanish called all the lands north of the Rio Grande. It was anglicized when the Spanish turned the area over to the U.S. after the Mexican American War in 1848.

New York

Originally, the Dutch occupied the land that’s now New York, and called it “New Amsterdam.” When the British took over in 1664 they renamed it “New York,” in honor of the Duke of York.

North and South Carolina

Locals might be singing “Sweet Caroline,” but these southern states are both named for the monarch King Charles II. Carolus is the Latin version of Charles. They were divided into separate colonies, north and south, in 1712. South Carolina was the eighth state to join the union on May 23, 1788, and North Carolina was the 12th, on Nov. 21, 1789.


The Columbia River used to be called the Oregon River, and that’s where the state got its name, but there are a few competing theories as to where “Oregon'' came from. Some say it comes from the Quebecois word ouragn, meaning “hurricane,” and might describe the weather faced by Canadian fur trappers. Others think its roots are Algonquin, while others think it may come from the Spanish orégano, for the wild sage that grows all over the state.


Pennsylvania” literally means “Penn’s Woods,” with the suffix derived from the Latin word for forest, sylva. In 1681, Quaker William Penn was given a large land grant from King Charles II, and he named the territory after his father, Admiral William Penn.

Rhode Island

None of the potential origin stories for Rhode Island's name explain why it’s called that if it’s not actually an island. Some attribute the name to 17th-century Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, who called it Roodt Eylandt, meaning “red island,” reflecting the red clay of the territory. Others say it was Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who said in a 1524 letter that an island near the mouth of the Narragansett Bay looked like the Isle of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.


Vermont is a portmanteau of the French words verd and mont, meaning “green” and “mountain,” respectively. French explorer Samuel de Champlain recorded the name on a map in 1647, after taking in the lush mountains that define the state.

Virginia and West Virginia

Both of these state names are a Latin nod to sovereign Queen Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen. Many think Sir Walter Raleigh suggested the name to the queen in 1584 when she allowed him to colonize the land. The new state was created when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861 and 39 western counties didn’t want to follow. It considered new names (including “Kanawha” after a local Indigenous tribe), but it ultimately just added “West.”


Perhaps surprisingly, Washington is the only state named after a U.S. President. George Washington’s name means “estate of a man named Wassa” in Old English.

Featured image credit: Burak Can Oztas/ iStock

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