How Did These States Get Their Names?


By: Ian Fortey

7 Min Quiz

Image: Andrea_Hill / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Place names often have some of the most interesting origin stories. You can look at something like "New York" and say that, sure, it was named that because there was once an old York and then they made this new one. But what does "York" even mean? What does Illinois mean and what language does it originally come from? Has Alaska always been Alaska, or did it start as something else?  Each state's name has a story behind it that so few of us ever bother to explore. 

When you do start looking into it, there's so much to wonder. What is a California? Is it an English word? Is it someone's name? When did it enter the lexicon?  Was Kentucky named for a guy named Ken? Who was the first person to ever utter the name "Texas"?

If you have any interest in the history of words or the history of America, it's worth checking out these stories of how the states got their names. If nothing else, it will give you a leg up in a game of Trivial Pursuit one day. And if you already do know some state histories, now's the time to take the quiz and show off what you know.

Here's an easy one. They named this state after a fairly noteworthy president. What is it?

Washington State was, of course, named for the first President of the United States, George Washington. The original plan was to call this region "Columbia," which would have been confusing since, even at that time, there was already the District of Columbia.


Do you know which state was named in honor of a French king?

Louisiana comes from the French "La Louisiane" which means "Land of Louis." Who was Louis? He was Louis XIV, the King of France from 1643 to 1715. That's also why French still holds such a strong influence in the state.


Even though America was founded by people leaving Britain behind, this state was named for the Queen. Sound familiar?

Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth I of England, who was also known as the "Virgin Queen." This seems very personal and quite embarrassing when you get an entire state named in honor of that fact, but things were different back then.


Despite the local climate, the name of this state means "snowfall." Do you know what it is?

Nevada gets its name from the Spanish word for "snowfall." Why is the driest state in the country, known for its deserts, named after the snow? Blame the Sierra Nevada mountains which do have snow on them and gave the state its name.


There are at least three theories to the origin of this state's name, but only one has been mostly debunked. What state is it?

Some people once thought that Arizona's name came from the Spanish "Arida Zona," meaning "arid zone." It does not. But it may come from the Basque shepherds who settled in the area and called it "Aritz Onak," meaning "good oak" for the trees there. Maybe it's from the Spanish "arizonac," meaning "little spring." Who knows?


This state has an oddly simple name. It means "red." What state is it?

Colorado got its name from the "Rio Colorado," the Colorado River, which means "red river." The sand carried down from the mountains was reddish, giving the river a reddish color. They named the state after it because they thought the Colorado River began there, even though it doesn't.


You can trace the name of this state back to pre-Roman times in England. What is it?

Obviously, New York got its name from an older place named York. York, England, is so old, it predates the English and was around during the Roman Empire. It likely existed before then as well, but the Romans weren't fans of keeping the history of those whom they conquered. The name "York" is from the Latin name for "city." It could go back to Celtic settlers, though.


What the ocean did to the land inspired the natives in the area to give this state its current name. What is it?

Alaska was named by the Aleutian people, who called the land "alaxsxaq." It means "the object toward which the action of the sea is directed." Alaska is easier to pronounce but is more poetic in the original language.


Do you like boating? You may like this state whose name may mean "he of the big canoe." What is it?

Missouri and the river of the same name get their name from the native tribe that once called that land home. The popular belief is that the name comes from an Illinois language that referred to the natives as wooden canoe people.


This state was named for a British king. Any idea what it is?

Georgia was named in honor of King George II because he granted the charter for the colony that would become Georgia. Originally conceived as a place for poor debtors to start again instead of going to debtors' prison, it became a regular state like any other.


There are several theories to explain how this state got its name. What state is it?

It seems like Hawaii's name should have a simple origin, but there are a handful of stories surrounding it. One says it was named for Hawai'iloa, who discovered the islands. Another says it's from the Polynesian word "sawaiki" for "homeland," or the Maori word "hawaiki,' or the Rarotonga word "avaiki," or the Samoan word "savai'i." Whatever the case, it's a beautiful state.


A province in France is probably where this state got its name, but no one is 100% sure of that. What state is it?

Maine was likely named for a province of the same name in France, and it became registered on the books as such in 1665. There was also some speculation it related to Maine being "the mainland" and separate from nearby islands. It's all in the past now, and the state ascribes to the French province theory, so let's go with that one.


"On the meadow" may be the literal translation of this state's name. Do you know the state?

Kentucky, like many states, got its name from the river that had the name first. The Kentucky River's name origin is a bit mysterious, but there's some consensus that it comes from an Iroquoian word that means "on the meadow" or "on the prairie" or something very much like that.


Captain John Mason named this state. What is it?

New Hampshire, as you can imagine, was named for old Hampshire (which most people call Hampshire), a county in England. John Mason was a fairly renowned sailor who worked for King James. Though he picked the name, he never made it to the state in person.


"Big lake" is basically what the name of this state means. Name the state.

Michigan takes its name from Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes. The Ojibwa word "misshikama" means something like "big lake" or "large water," and that's why it was given the name. Makes you wonder what they called Lake Superior, which was an even bigger lake.


Abraham Lincoln helped popularize the belief that this state's name means "Father of Waters." Well, it doesn't. What state is it?

Mississippi gets its name from, you guessed it, the Mississippi River. The word itself is pretty simple and not as flowery as Lincoln would have you believe. It's an Ojibwa word that means "big river." All things being equal, it's a very appropriate name.


Want to know the origin of this state's name? Join the club. It's a mystery!

Idaho is thought to have gotten its name thanks to mining lobbyist George Willing. Willing suggested the name Idaho came from the Shoshone Indian term "ee-da-how" and meant something like "gem of the mountain." The only problem is that it's likely he made that up, and the word never meant anything.


Do you know what state was named for Sir Thomas West, the first colonial governor of Virginia?

Delaware was named for Sir Thomas West who was the third Baron De La Warr. His name was also given to the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. What is a Baron De La Warr? It is a word that comes from a French title that meant someone was a warrior.


This state gets its name from an Algonquian word that means something like "long tidal river." Name it!

Connecticut got its name from an Indian word which means "beside the long tidal river" or "upon the long tidal river." The state got the name tagged to it after the Connecticut River, the long tidal river beside it.


There's an island in the English Channel that inspired this state's name. Tell us what it is!

New Jersey was named by Sir John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret who chose to name it after Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands in Britain. The Dutch and the Swedes both controlled the land before the English got to it, and before that, it had been home to native peoples for several thousand years.


You could just as easily call this state "green mountain." What is it?

Vermont's name has French origins. It comes from two separate words. The first is "vert," which means green, and the second is "mont," which means mountain. Thomas Young, a politician and organizer of the Boston Tea Party, was said to have come up with the name as a tip of the hat to the Green Mountain Boys, a local militia.


This state has the oldest surviving European name in America dating back to 1513. Do you know what it is?

Florida was named six days after Easter in 1513. The name means "feast of flowers." Florida was named by famed conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon to celebrate both Easter, which was a much bigger deal at that time, and the abundant plant life he found in the area when he got there.


This state's name means "flat water." Any idea what it is?

Nebraska's name comes from a native word meaning "flat water," in reference to the Platte River. It's thought to have derived from the Otoe people who used to live in the area.


After whom does a king name a state? His father, of course! Which state received that honor?

Both North and South Carolina were named for the father of King Charles II. Obviously, his father was also Charles, so maybe he just named them after himself. Regardless, the Carolina name comes from the Latin form of Charles, which was Carolus.


The name of this state may mean "beautiful" or "sleepy ones." Do you know what it is?

Iowa gets its name from the Ioway natives who used to live there. The meaning of the word is one of those with a different story depending on who you ask. In the late 1800s, the General Assembly of Iowa said the word meant "the beautiful land," but if you were to ask the Ioway people, they'd tell you that the word means "sleepy ones" and it was the name given to them by the Dakota Sioux as a joke. The Ioway call themselves the Baxoje, incidentally.


"On the big river flat" is what the name of this state means, more or less. What do you know it as?

Wyoming's name is derived from the Munsee Delaware native word "xwé:wamənk." Doesn't look easy to pronounce, does it? The word means something like "on the big prairie" or "on the big river flat" and became the generally accepted name for the region in the 1860s.


Two different events may be the source of the name of this state. What is it?

Rhode Island has two competing theories for its name. The first is that Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano compared it to the famous Island of Rhodes back in the Mediterranean. The second is that Dutch privateer Adrian Block referred to it, in Dutch, as "een rodlich Eylande" which means red island, a result of either red clay or red fall foliage.


Do you know which state was named after a mythical island full of gold and precious stones, inhabited by magical creatures and women who lived like Amazons with no men?

California's name comes from "The Adventures of Esplandian," a novel by Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo written in the 1500s. Explorers named the Baja California Peninsula after it, and the name seems to have expanded from there.


They named this state in honor of the wife of King Charles I, even though it's not quite her name. Do you know it?

Maryland got its name in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria who granted the colony's charter. It is said that the state would have been named Mariana, except that Lord Baltimore, who founded it, had a beef with a historian named Juan de Mariana and didn't want the new colony associated with him.


They named this state for the mountains. Can you guess what it is?

Montana is almost too simple for its own good. It's from the Spanish "montaña" which means "mountain" and is about as blunt and on the nose as any state in the country. How did a state so far north end up with a Spanish name? Well, that's a good question, but it doesn't have a good answer.


This state got its name from a famous admiral. Do you know the state?

Pennsylvania was named for Admiral William Penn. The "sylvania" part means "woodlands," more or less, so the proper name is "Penn's Woodland" or, in more modern parlance, "Penn's Forest." William Penn's son named it after his dad. He got the land as a payoff for a debt that had been owed to him.


The name of this state probably comes from the Seneca word for the river that runs through it. What is it?

Ohio was named after the Ohio River. Some believed the word Ohio meant "beautiful river" since that's how an early French explorer described it. But he was describing it, not naming it. The Seneca word "ohi:yo" is a much more likely origin, and that word means "great river" or "large creek."


French explorers tweaked the pronunciation of this state's name which they thought meant "man" but which more likely means "he speaks the regular way."

The people who came from what we now call Illinois spelled their name numerous ways, making it difficult for a "correct" version of the name to be known. There seems to be some debate about whether the name originally meant "man" or "superior men" or if it meant "he speaks in the regular way." In any event, the French changed it to Illinois.


It's possible the name of this state means "plant gatherers." That may have been what the Choctaw natives called the people who lived here. What's the state's name?

Alabama was named for the native people who used to live along the shores of the Alabama River. They were called the Alabama people, and many explorers had contact with them though none wrote down what the word "Alabama" actually meant. Alabama Attorney General Alexander Beaufort Meek popularized the idea that it meant "here we rest," but there's no evidence of that translation coming from anywhere.


If not for some great hills, this state might have an entirely different name. What is it?

Massachusetts gets its name from the natives who used to live in that area. The word itself refers to hills near Boston and means "near the great hill." If the natives had lived a few miles in any other direction, who knows what the state might have been called.


"Friend" is what this state's name means. It was called "New Philippines" for a while. Do you know it?

Texas is from a language called Caddo, which almost no one in the speaks anymore. The Spanish called the Caddo people "tejas," and there are many other spellings, including "teysha," "techas," and "texias." However you spell it, though, it meant they liked the people who originally lived there.


Not everyone gets to have a pretty name. This state's name can be translated as "muddy water." What is it?

Minnesota's name derives from what the Dakota tribe called the Minnesota River. Rivers, as you can tell by now, are very important in the naming of things. The word "mnisota" means muddy or cloudy water. The natives explained the name to the settlers by pouring milk into water to make it cloudy.


"Friend" may be the literal translation of the name of this state, but no one can say that with 100% certainty. What is it?

North Dakota, and by extension South Dakota, owe their name to the Dakota people who lived in that region. The exact meaning of the word "Dakota" is not generally accepted by anyone with certainty, so speculation abounds. The idea that it's the Sioux word for "friend" or "ally" is a popular one, and it's kind of nice when you think about it.


This state was likely named after a Native American village but there are two origin stories with two different village names that both sound the same. Do you know the state?

The state of Tennessee may have been named after a village called "Tanasqui" that Juan Pardo, the Spanish Explored, discovered in 1567. Or it could have been named after a Cherokee village called "Tanasi" that British traders found a couple of hundred years later. Or both of those villages could have been the same village. The meaning of the word is no longer known.


The name of this state comes from the natives who lived there long ago and the river that also bears their name. It may mean "people of the South wind." What is it?

Kansas was named for the Kansas River which in turn was named for the Kansa tribe. You might know them by the name Kanza or Kaw, which is how they are typically known in the present. The Kaw Nation's headquarters are currently in Kaw City, Oklahoma.


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