How Did Every US State Get Its Name?

Have you ever wondered where your state's name comes from? If you assume they come from the indigenous peoples who once lived there, you're likely right. Almost half of all state name origins can be sourced to the Native Americans, typically because they first named a river or lake in the region. But there are others that aren't so obvious. 

Every US state on the map has an interesting naming origin if you dig deep enough. Many, in fact, remain mysteries to this day. If you're an etymology nerd or a fan of United States history, this super-sized list has plenty for you to ponder.

Photo: Ixnay1 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 3.0

  • Pretty straightforwardly, Alabama was named for the Alabama Indian tribe that lived in the western part of the state and eastern Mississippi until the early 1800s. The meaning of the word "Alabama" is unclear, but it may come from a Choctaw word meaning "thicket-clearers" or "vegetation-gatherers."

  • The native Aleut word for Alaska, alaxsxaq, literally means the "object toward which the action of the sea is directed." Anthropologists note that this is essentially a "sea-centric" way to say "mainland."

  • State historian Marshall Trimble says "Arizona" comes from the Basque words "aritz ona," meaning "good oaks," but there are other theories. Some think it's a corruption of Aleh-Shonak, a Native American village near Nogales, or it comes from the Spanish Arizonac, possibly a local name from the O'odham Native Americans that means "having a little spring."

  • "Arkansas" comes from Arkansa, which is what the French called the Quapaw tribe in the region. The "S" was added to make it plural, but it is officially silent. The original Quapaw word means "south wind."

  • California is the only state in the union named for a fictional place: the island paradise of California in Las Sergas de Esplanidian, a popular novel written in 1500 by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo. The island in the book is ruled by black women described as similar to Amazons. The Baja Peninsula, mistaken for an island, was likely named California by conquistadors based on its apparent similarity to the island in the book.

  • "Colorado" is simply the Spanish word for "ruddy" or "reddish-colored," which is how Spanish explorers first described the Colorado River (Rio Colorado, or "Red River") upon initially seeing it.