By Daniel Rigney
Only five states in the United States bear names of English origin. (Can you identify them?*) The other 45 derive their names from non-English sources, including several Native American languages, Spanish, French and (guess which state) Hawaiian.
The names of our 50 states are historic reminders that our country has always been multicultural. Today, more than ever, we're a swirled nation in a swirled world.
I don’t want be the one to break this news to those in the English Only movement who advocate for laws discouraging linguistic diversity. If they find out how many foreign names our states have, they may try to Anglicize them all, insisting that they be English-only.
News of our etymological diversity may not be welcome among Englishists in states such as Friendship (“Texas”), Fictional Island (“California”), Reddish Color (“Colorado”), or Dugout Canoe (“Missouri”).
Neither is of our multicultural history likely to be embraced warmly by English-only Thicket Clearers (“Alabamans”), Floweries (“Floridians”) or Female Georges (“Georgians,” from a Greek word for “earthworker” or farmer).
Who will issue the clarion call to the forces of Englishism? Who will alert them to the unsettling historical fact that nearly all of our states have alien names? Certainly not I.
New things have been learned in the making of this article. I’ve learned, for instance, that Arizona is not Spanish for “Arid Zone,” as I had thought, so you’ll find no puns here japing Arid Extra Dry or the intellectual aridity of the Southwest.
I’ve learned that Idaho’s name was probably invented as a practical joke by a guy in Colorado (a certain “Doc” Willing, if that’s his real name), possibly in dubious honor of a girl named Ida. You can look it up.
I’ve found that whether a name’s origin is technically English or not is sometimes a judgment call. Mary-land may sound Englishy, but biblical scholars tells us that Mary is actually an ancient Hebrew name. Jeez, who knew that Maryland is a Jewish name?
Finally, a question for the comic imagination. I’ve learned that the latinate Virginia, “Land of the Virgin” (which is not the state license-plate motto, by the way) honors the putatively chaste Queen Elizabeth I. If she or her reputation had been less chaste, what would the commonwealth have been called instead?
The curious mind never rests.
*Are you looking for the answer? Go to this list of U.S. state name etymologies and find the buried treasure.