Native American Place Names

Updated November 12, 2021 | Borgna Brunner
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The name Tahoe (the lake in California/Nevada) is Washo for "big water."

The state name Utah is from the Ute tribe, meaning "people of the mountains."

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American places have been named after Indian words. In fact, about half of the states got their names from Indian words. The name of Kentucky comes from an Iroquoian word (Kentahten), which means "land of tomorrow." Connecticut's name comes from the Mohican word (Quinnehtukqut), which means "beside the long tidal river." And the word "Podunk," meant to describe a insignificant town out in the middle of nowhere, comes from a Natick Indian word meaning "swampy place."

Alabama: may come from Choctaw meaning "thicket-clearers" or "vegetation-gatherers."

Alaska: corruption of Aleut word meaning "great land" or "that which the sea breaks against."

Arizona: from the Indian "Arizonac," meaning "little spring" or "young spring."

Arkansas: from the Quapaw Indians.

Chicago (Illinois): Algonquian for "garlic field."

Chesapeake (bay): Algonquian name of a village.

Connecticut: from an Indian word (Quinnehtukqut) meaning "beside the long tidal river."

Illinois: Algonquin for "tribe of superior men."

Iowa: probably from an Indian word meaning "this is the place" or "the Beautiful Land."

Kansas: from a Sioux word meaning "people of the south wind."

Kentucky: from an Iroquoian word "Ken-tah-ten" meaning "land of tomorrow."

Massachusetts: from Massachusett tribe of Native Americans, meaning "at or about the great hill."

Michigan: from Indian word "Michigana" meaning "great or large lake."

Minnesota: from a Dakota Indian word meaning "sky-tinted water."

Mississippi (state and river): from an Indian word meaning "Father of Waters."

Malibu (California): believed to come from Chumash.

Manhattan (New York): Lenape, roughly "the place where we get bows"

Milwaukee (Wisconsin): Algonquian, believed to mean "a good spot or place."

Missouri: named after the Missouri people. "Missouri" means "town of large canoes."

Narragansett (Rhode Island): named after the local people.

Nebraska: from an Oto word meaning "flat water."

Niagara (falls): named after an Iroquoian town, "Ongiaahra."

North Dakota: from the Sioux, meaning "allies."

Ohio: from an Iroquoian word meaning "great river."

Oklahoma: from two Choctaw Indian words meaning "red people."

Pensacola (Florida): Choctaw for "hair" and "people."

Roanoke (Virginia): Algonquian for "shell money" (Indian tribes often used shells that were made into beads called wampum, as money).

Saratoga (New York): believed to be Mohawk for "springs (of water) from the hillside."

South Dakota: from the Sioux tribe, meaning "allies."

Sunapee (lake in New Hampshire): Pennacook for "rocky pond."

Tahoe (lake in California/Nevada): Washo for "big water."

Tennessee: of Cherokee origin; the exact meaning is unknown.

Texas: from an Indian word meaning "friends."

Utah: from the Ute tribe, meaning "people of the mountains."

Wisconsin: French corruption of an Indian word whose meaning is disputed.

Wyoming: from the Delaware Indian word, meaning "mountains and valleys alternating"; the same as the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania.

Source: O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English, by Charles L. Cutler.


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