One glance at a map reveals plenty of hints about the history of North America. British Columbia, for example, was clearly settled by the British; and Louisiana’s name presumably pays tribute to one of France’s former kings (it does—King Louis XIV). Other names were taken from the languages of Native Americans forced off their land by European explorers.
The meaning of certain monikers is well-documented and simple. England’s Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, named Maryland after Queen Henrietta Maria, whose husband, King Charles I, had granted Calvert the territory charter. Calvert’s own family got their fair share of name recognition, too—Maryland is home to both Calvert County and, of course, Baltimore.
But for many places in the U.S. and Canada (and beyond), the stories behind their names aren’t so straightforward. Idaho was said to have come from a Shoshone word translated as “gem of the mountains,” though some think it could’ve been derived from an Apache word for “enemy.” Another leading theory is that the man who suggested the name—industrialist George M. Willing—simply made it up. He originally proposed Idaho for the Colorado region, but it was shot down once people realized it might not actually mean anything. When Idaho became a formal territory a year later, settlers didn’t seem to have an issue calling it a possibly fake name.
In short, not every name can be translated into one concise, correct phrase. The map below, created by Expedia, is a visual breakdown of some of the most popular—but not necessarily the only—meanings of place names in the U.S. and Canada. Certain ones actually are direct translations, like Nova Scotia (Latin for “New Scotland”). Others reference the reason the name was chosen; Colorado, Spanish for “red-colored,” was so named for the reddish sandstone soil from the river.
After you’ve located your home state on the map, you can find out more about its name origin here.