Mental Floss

How Did the States in the USA Get Their Names? (Part IV)

Matt Soniak
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Reader Adam from Fairfax, Virginia, wrote in to ask, “How did the US states get their names?” This week, we’re tackling the origins and meaning of the names 10 states at a time. Here’s New Mexico through South Carolina. (Be sure to also check out Monday’s post on Alabama through Georgia, Tuesday’s post on Hawaii through Maryland, and Wednesday's post on Massachusetts through New Jersey.)

New Mexico

New Mexico and the country it used to be part of, Mexico, both take their name from Nahuatl Mexihco. The meaning of the word is unclear, but there are several hypotheses. It might reference Mextli or M?xihtli, an alternate name for Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and patron of the Aztecs, and mean “place where M?xihtli lives”. It’s also been suggested that the word is a combination of m?tztli (“moon”), xictli (“center”) and the suffix -co (“place”) and means “place at the center of the moon” (in reference to Lake Texcoco).

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

- Derived from the French ouragan (“hurricane”) and the state named so because French explorers called the Columbia River le fleuve aux ouragans (“Hurricane River”) due to the strong winds in the Columbia Gorge.

- Derived from oolighan, a Chinook name for the eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), a smelt found along the Pacific coast and prized as a source of food for Native Americans in the area.

- Derived from the Spanish orejón (“big ears”), which early Spanish explorers reportedly used to refer to local natives.

- Derived from Ouragon, a word used by Major Robert Rogers in a 1765 petition asking the British government to finance and supply an overland search for the Northwest Passage. As to where Rogers got the word, it could have come from an error on a French-made map from the early 1700s, where the Ouisiconsink (“Wisconsin River”) is misspelled “Ouaricon-sint,” and broken so “Ouaricon” sits on a line by itself or it might have been derived from the Algonquian wauregan or olighin, which both mean “good and beautiful” (and were both used in reference to the Ohio River at the time).

- Derived from the Shoshone words Ogwa (river) and Pe-On (west) and picked up from the Sioux, who referred to the Columbia as the “River of the West,” by American explorer Jonathan Carver.

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Carolina

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