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The Literal Translation of Every State Name

Royals, homelands, and Native American words are just some of the inspirations behind state names.

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USA MapKeithBinns/Getty Images

What’s in a name?

The United States is built on land that was once owned by many different cultures and people. The names of our states, cities, lakes, and other beautiful landmarks from sea to shining sea have come from a multitude of different influences.

When it comes to the names of our 50 states, a great deal are from the Native people of this land and their languages. Others still were from influences across the pond and all across the world. Some names are still shrouded in mystery or even lost to time (though some are in these state facts that we bet you didn’t know). Names are often fluid and change over time, so understanding where they came from is a crucial step to understanding our history and how to make the right strides into the future.

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veggiesYulia Grigoryeva/shutterstock


For a long time, many believed “Alabama” meant “Here we rest” in the native Muskogee language, but that has been disproven—more or less. Linguistic scholars now believe the name comes from the Choctaw alba (meaning “plants” or “weeds”) and amo (meaning “to cut,” “to trim,” or “to gather”). In all likelihood, the state was named for its agricultural roots, in particular, vegetable farming.

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Majestic caribou bull in front of the mount Denali, ( mount Mckinley), AlaskalMartin Capek/Shutterstock


The largest of the United States, Alaska’s name comes from the Aleut word, “Aleyska,” which means “great land,” according to the Government of Alaska’s website. The Aleuts have been living in the land that is now known as Alaska since about 10,000 BCE when it was physically connected to Russia via the Bering Land Bridge.

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stump of tree felled - section of the trunk with annual ringsgornostay/Shutterstock


The meaning of the name “Arizona” is subject to debate. Some say it means “Place of Little Spring” (from the Native American word, “al shon”). Others believe it means “The Good Oak Tree” from the Basque word meaning the same. Both interpretations seem equally likely based on Arizona’s history. Speaking of, Arizona happens to be one of the only two states that don’t observe daylights savings time.

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The word “Arkansas” came from the Quapaw Indians, by way of early French explorers, according to the Arkansas Secretary of State. It means “south wind,” a reference to the Quapaws, who were known as “people who live downstream.”

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Bixby Bridge, Highway #1 Big Sur - California USAMaks Ershov/Shutterstock


The name “California” means “the land ruled by Califa.” The name came about through a combination of mistake and mythology: the first Spanish explorers to discover the land believed it to be an island. So 16th-century mapmakers gave it the romantic name, California, in honor of the book, Las Sergas de Esplandián, by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, a tale about California, a mythical island ruled by Queen Califa. Test your mettle to see if you’re more geographically savvy than those first Spanish explorers.

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Aerial view on the Colorado river and the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USaAnton_Ivanov/Shutterstock


The meaning of the name “Colorado” derives from the Spanish phrase for “colored red.” There is some debate over where that phrase came from; some say it refers to the red silt of the Colorado River from which the state is thought to have gotten its name. Others point out that the Colorado River was known as the Grand River until 1921 long after Colorado became a state in 1876. Their theory is that the state took its name from Colorado City (now Colorado Springs), which is situated close to the state’s famed red rocks.

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The Connecticut River on a Beautiful Summer Dayscnhnc052008/Shutterstock


Connecticut takes its name from the Connecticut River, which was named for the native Algonquin word meaning “land on the long tidal river,” according to History. You’ll never guess what lies behind these doors in Putnam, Connecticut…or any of these other secret places in each state.

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Aerial drone image of the Delaware Memorial BridgeFelix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock


The name “Delaware” is a tribute to the very first governor of Virginia, Thomas West, the Lord De La Warr. In 1610, the explorer Samuel Argall named the body of water that is now the Delaware River for Governor De La Warr, and the state later got its name from the river.

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Blooming cultivar swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata 'Soulmate') in the summer gardenphotowind/Shutterstock


Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first landed on what would become the Sunshine State in the spring of 1513. He named the area “Pascua Florida,” literally “Feast of Flowers,” a Spanish holiday related to Easter. Today, April 2 is celebrated as Pascua Florida Day to commemorate de Leon’s landing. From flowers to birds to spectacular architecture, don’t miss these secret gems in each state.

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king george iiHistoria/Shutterstock


Georgia was named for King George II, who granted the charter to establish the colony in 1732. Georgia is the name “George” with the Greek suffix “ia” that means “state of” tacked onto the end.

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Hawaii view point Yevgeniy Melnik/Shutterstock


There are almost as many suggested meanings behind the word “Hawaii” as there are islands of Hawaii. Here are a few of the top explanations: It’s the name of the first settler there, Hawaii Loa; it’s the Polynesian word for their homeland; it’s derived from “Hawaiki,” the Maori word for homeland, and/or it is a contraction of two words, “hawa” (meaning homeland) and “ii” (meaning small and raging). Today, these Hawaiian words and phrases hold the secret to Zen.

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an alpine meadow near Stanley, Idaho, with the Sawtooth Mountains in the backgroundGerald Cosby/Shutterstock


The name “Idaho” has no translation at all because it’s entirely made up. In an early form of marketing that would make these modern-day businesses proud, the name was suggested by a local leader in 1860 who claimed the word “Idaho” was a Native American word for “gem of the mountains.” Later that same year, gold was discovered in the Clearwater area, proving his invented name wasn’t far off base. Make sure to study the history of the land you live in with these facts about Native Americans you didn’t learn in school.

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The name “Illinois” comes from the word the French used to refer to the “Illiniwek” people, a large group of Native American tribes that all shared similar cultures and the land we now call Illinois. It has been suggested the name itself means either “the men” or “he who speaks in the ordinary way.” Can you guess the one letter that’s not in ANY state name? Hint: It’s not I, L, N, O, or S!

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Native american dancer at a PowwowMiro Vrlik Photography/Shutterstock


The name Indiana means “land of the Indian.” The state capitol, “Indianapolis,” uses the Greek suffix, “polis,” meaning “city of.” Indiana became a state in 1816.

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Aerial drone image of farmland landscape in Iowa USAFelix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock


Some believe the name “Iowa” means “beautiful place” in the ancient language of the Aborigines. But it is more likely to have come from the Sauk and Fox tribe word “kiowa,” which means “This is the place” or “crossing or going over.” In the 1830s Black Hawk, a Sauk leader, led his tribes across the Mississippi River near Davenport, and is said to have named it “Kiowa.” The “K” was later dropped by European settlers.

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Farm fence and meadow in the Flint Hills of Kansas in the Midwestern United States.SilverEdge/Shutterstock


Kansas was named for its indigenous tribe, the Kansa, who were known by English speakers as “People of the South Wind.” There’s also evidence the Kansa people referred to themselves simply as “the people.” Check out these historical firsts from every state.

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Kentucky Horse FarmStephen Bailey/Shutterstock


The Bluegrass State is another that has a name with origins in a Native American language, though there is debate as to which one. Some think it derived from the Wyandot name for the area, “Kah-ten-tah-teh,” roughly translated as “Land of Tomorrow.” Others think it came from the Shawnee name for the area, “Kain-tuck-ee,” which means “At the Head of the River.” It’s also possible it comes from the Iroquoian or Mohawk word “Kentucke,” meaning “among the meadows.”

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king louis xivUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock


Like Georgia, Louisiana was named in honor of a king, only this time, the king was King Louis XIV of France. The area was colonized by the French during the last years of Louis’s reign. While this might be obvious, we bet we can stump you on these state facts everyone gets wrong.

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Lighthouse on the rocks, Portland, MaineDav Himbt/Shutterstock


The name “Maine” first appeared in writing in 1622 in the charter granting the land on which it sits to Sir Ferdinando Gorges. Other names suggested were Laconia and New Somerset, but in 1639, King Charles I let it be known that he did not care for the latter. So, according to various theories, Maine won out for one of these reasons: Sir Gorges’ family was from a village in England called Broadmayne, there may have been a small coastal village in England called Maine, or it may simply be a shortening of the term “mainland” as Maine has numerous islands.

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king charlesUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock


Like Maine, Maryland was also named with the help of King Charles; the name is in honor of his wife, Henrietta Maria. As the story goes, he suggested naming the territory “Mariana,” but Lord Baltimore objected as it sounded too Spanish, so they settled on “Maryland.”

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Berkshire Mountains in Autumn, Deerfield, MassachusettsJoseph Sohm/Shutterstock


The name “Massachusetts” is the name of the Native American tribe who populated the land that is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the Massachusetts language, the name means “people of the great hills,” a reference to the “Great Blue Hill” in Milton, which was once an active volcano.

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A sailboat passes between the Frankfort, Michigan North and South Breakwater Lights and into Lake Michigan on a bright and sunny morning.Kenneth Keifer/Shutterstock


The name Michigan comes from the Ojibwa word, “Michigama,” which means “great or large lake” It’s an apt name when you consider that almost half of Michigan is comprised of water and it has 3,224 miles of shoreline, reports NOAA.

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Clouds reflecting on watersirtravelalot/Shutterstock


Like 27 other states in the Union, Minnesota takes its name from a Native American word or phrase. In this case, it comes from the Dakota word for “sky-tinted water” or “cloudy water,” no doubt in reference to the mighty Mississippi which bisects the state.

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Aerial of barge on Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.iofoto/Shutterstock


Mississippi took its name from the river flowing along its western boundary. The word, “Mississippi” means “great river” in at least three Native American languages, including the Chippewa, Algonquin, and Ojibwe.

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High angle of a young couple sitting in a canoe together paddling on a still lake in summerFlamingo Images/Shutterstock


Missouri may mean “muddy waters” (presumably of the Mississippi) or “town of the large canoes,” in the language of the native Sioux tribe, per the Secretary of State of the State of Missouri.

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Scenic view of Saint Mary Lake with snow capped mountains in backgroundhdsidesign/Shutterstock


The name “Montana” is derived from “montaña” the Spanish word for mountain or mountainous region. Fun fact: Despite its name, Montana has an average elevation of under 3,500 feet. But Montana’s mountains are prominent to its topography; its Western portion is dominated by the Rockies, and the state features over 50 mountain ranges.

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cornfields, Schuyler, NebraskaWeldon Schloneger/Shutterstock


Nebraska derives from the Oto Indian word for “flat water” (“nebrathka”) aka the Platte River that runs through it. While you’re checking out Nebraska’s nebrathka, please make sure not to miss its annual sweet corn festival.

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Sierra Nevada MountainsStephen Borengasser/Shutterstock


OK, let’s just get this out of the way first: the proper way to pronounce this state is Nev-AD-a (where the “Va” rhymes with “and”), and here’s how to pronounce the hardest town names in each state. But what’s weird about this hard-to-pronounce state is that since the name comes from “nieve” the Spanish word for “snow-capped,” you’d think it would be pronounced in the Spanish way, Nay-VAH-dah.

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Man at a New Hampshire pond takes in the autumn leaves and the mountains/Man at pond enjoys autumn leavesWarren Bouton/Shutterstock

New Hampshire

New Hampshire was chartered to Captain John Mason at the same time Maine was granted to Sir Gorges in the 1620s. The area had originally been dubbed “North Virginia;” King James later changed that to New England, which was narrowed down further to New Hampshire, in honor of Hampshire, the English county where Mason hailed from. Interesting note: Captian Mason died before ever setting foot in the New World.

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hiking on a cliff path on jersey islandPatrickBieniek Germany/Shutterstock

New Jersey

Like New Hampshire, New Jersey was named after a place in England, the Isle of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. After England took control of the area from the Netherlands in 1664, it was divided into two parts; Sir George Carteret, who was granted the eastern half hailed, from the original Jersey. Here are more European islands you probably never even heard of, let alone though to visit.

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Panoramic view of Zocalo and Cathedral - Mexico City, MexicoDiego Grandi/Shutterstock

New Mexico

Funny thing about New Mexico: it’s named after the country we know as Mexico, but it turns out the country isn’t really called “Mexico.” Its real name is “The United Mexican States” and has been ever since the nation gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Many historians believe the word, Mexico, itself, derives from the Nahuatl tribe’s word for “place of the Mexica,” the Mexica being a nomadic Aztec-based people.

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king james liUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

New York

Many people believe the “York” in New York refers to a town in England (whether York or Yorkshire). However, it’s more accurate to say “York” refers to King James II of England, who as the second-born son of King Charles I was designated Duke of York. (Confused? Here’s how the royals get their titles.) King Charles II, James’s older brother who ruled England in 1664 when the colony was taken over by the British from the Netherlands in 1664, named the new colony after James, Duke of York.

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Raleigh, North Carolina, USA downtown city skyline.Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

North Carolina

Carolina, although associated with female names nowadays, was derived from the name “Carolus,” which translated as “Charles.” That should give you a big hint as to who the state was named for: Charles I who granted the territory to his attorney general Robert Heath in 1629.

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young couple hand on wooden tableTiko Aramyan/Shutterstock

North Dakota

In the Sioux language (the Sioux tribe was indigenous to the land that became the Dakotas), the word for “friend” is “dakota.” Until 1861, the land that is now North Dakota had been part of the Minnesota and Nebraska Territories. After having been bought in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, North Dakota became a state in 1889 on the same day as South Dakota.

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Barge Heading up the Ohio River at Wheeling, West VirginiaDavid Byron Keener/Shutterstock


“Ohio” derives from the Iroquois word “ohi-yo,” meaning “great river” or “large creek.” Heading to Ohio? Make sure to put this place on your bucket list—here’s the best bucket list idea for each of the 50 states.

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Painting close up red texture for interesting, creative, imaginative backgrounds.Victorstock/Shutterstock


Oklahoma translates from the Choctaw language as the red people—Okla means “people” and humma means “red.” Did it make the list of the most important U.S. cities for history buffs.

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Wooden spoon with Italian seasoning-dried oregano with thyme,vegetables.Oregano in a wooden spoon on a rocky concretedark black background with a place for text Top viewRemitski Ivan/Shutterstock


“Oregon” is thought to come from the French Canadian word, “ouragan.” It means “hurricane” and may refer to the weather conditions faced by Canadian fur trappers, although the spelling is closer to the Spanish word, “orégano,” the spice, which grows in parts of Oregon.

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Pine forest with rising sun behind the trees.UrmasHaljaste/Shutterstock


Pennsylvania is named for William Penn, who received the charter from King Charles II as a settlement of a debt the crown owed his father. The “sylvania”-suffix is Latin for “wooded area” or “forest” and describes what the land looked like before it was settled. While Pennsylvania is a historically rich city, these other cities have landmarks that almost didn’t exist.

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giovanni da verrazzanoHistoria/Shutterstock

Rhode Island

Explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano named the area Rhode Island because when he first saw it in 1524, it reminded him of the Greek island of Rhodes. People liked the name, and it stuck.

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Charleston bridgejdross75/Shutterstock

South Carolina

Like the Carolina to the north, South Carolina was named after King Charles I. The two Carolinas were developing separately for years before they officially divided into two in 1712, with South Carolina retaining “Charles Town,” or “Charleston,” the city named after King Charles II.

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benjamin harrisonThe Art Archive/Shutterstock

South Dakota

For the meaning of the word “dakota,” see “North Dakota” above. Those with loyalty to South Dakota will claim that South Dakota was admitted to the United States before North Dakota, but apparently, President Benjamin Harrison didn’t pay attention to which state he signed into existence first on November 2, 1889.

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Fishing the Tennessee River in AlabamaKathy Clark/Shutterstock


“Tennessee” is derived from “Tanasi,” a Cherokee word referring a winding river, or a river with many bends in it. The U.S. map as we know it would look a lot different if these almost states had made it.

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International group of stylish young students giving high five at cafe while having lunch, celebrating successful examination at college. Education, success, teamwork, achievement and cooperationWAYHOME studio/Shutterstock


Like the Dakotas, Texas was named with friendship in mind. Texas is a variant of a word (Teysha) used by some Native Americans to refer to friends or allies. It has many different spellings, including “Texias,” “Tejas,” and “Teysas.”

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brigham youngUnderwood Archives/Shutterstock


If Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormons who is credited with settling the area, had his way, the state would be called “Deseret” and it would have been much larger, stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, as a result of the Compromise of 1850, the Territory of Utah, named after the indigenous Ute tribes, was formed. Utah became a state in 1896.

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The name “Vermont” is a contraction of the French words for green (verd) and mountain (mont). Vermont was settled by the French, and it’s known for its “green mountains.”

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Royal crown with sapphires, luxury retro style.Elina Leonova/Shutterstock


Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” It’s thought that Sir Walter Raleigh suggested the name to the Queen in 1584 when she gave Raleigh permission to colonize the land. Virginia has a great number of attractions and history, check out what these landmarks look like zoomed out.

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george washingtonUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock


Washington State is named after the first president of the United States, George Washington. The name Washington itself may be Olde English for a settlement (“tun”) created by victors (“wassa”).

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Cardinal Direction Direction pointer Sign against blue sky. Directions North, South, East, West are denoted by their initials N, E, S, and W on the metal plates.DRG Photography/Shutterstock

West Virginia

Originally part of Virginia, West Virginia was named in honor of Queen Elizabeth. The “West” was added when it separated from Virginia as its residents did not want to secede from the Union during the Civil War. It became a state in 1863.

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Background photography of bright sunny lush grass field under blue sunny sky. Outdoor countryside meadow nature. Rural pasture landscape of plain grass background. Agricultural grass field pasturesDmitry Polonskiy/Shutterstock


The Wisconsin Historical Society claims that the name Wisconsin (or, “Meskongsing” as it was called before the English changed the French version of the original Native American word), means “river running through a red place” in the language of the Miami tribe of Indians. However, others claim it translates to “grassy place” in the Chippewa language.

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Feather Grass or Needle Grass, Nassella tenuissima, forms already at the slightest breath of wind filigree pattern.Ryzhkov Oleksandr/Shutterstock


As with many states, Wyoming’s name was inspired by the Native American language; “Mechewami-ing,” which means “the great plain” in the language of the Delaware Tribe. Other options considered were Cheyenne, Big Horn, Yellowstone, Sioux, and Lincoln. But you know what we’d rather think about right about now? The best ice cream in Wyoming…and every state.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.