Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Naming the states

That so many place names in the United States, especially the names of states and rivers, were derived from indigenous American languages, rather than European languages, seems surprising. Sure we have state names like Rhodes Island, Virginia and Pennsylvania with obvious European roots, yet so many others were taken from Indian words, however corrupted those words may have been in the process.

Ohio River
My own state, Ohio, got its name from an Iroquois word meaning "good river." Michigan comes from a Chippewa word meaning "great water." Massachusetts comes from an Algonquian word, the meaning of which remains unclear although "great hill" is often mentioned. Connecticut got its name from Quinnehtukqut, which means "beside the long tidal river." Oregon may have gotten its name from an Indian name for a river, the Ouragon. Continuing the theme of naming states after Indian words referring to rivers, Mississippi comes from Misi-ziibi, meaning "great river." Idaho was supposedly named for a Shoshone word meaning "gem of the mountains," but this was later found to be a hoax. It was just a made-up word. Oklahoma comes from a Choctaw phrase meaning "red people."

And so it goes. Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Alaska and Alabama are among other states whose names had Indian origins.

One of the oddest state name stories may be that of Wyoming, which Elizabeth Little says in Trip of the Tongue "comes from the same language that was spoken in and around what is now New York City." It was first used as a place name in eastern Pennsylvania, where there are towns named Wyoming, Wyomissing and Wyomissing Hills. At least a dozen other states have Wyoming as a place name, as do Ontario, Canada, and New South Wales, Australia. The popularity of the place name, Little writes, has to do with a poem by Thomas Campbell, which contains the line, "On Susquehanna's side, fair Wyoiming!" The word means either "at the big river flat" or "large prairie place," depending upon whom you believe.

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