Language Dossier

Name Origins: Places in America

Many of the mountains and lakes and rivers in the New World already had names when the first European settlers arrived. The names had been made up by the Indians. The settlers learned and used many of the Indian names, which usually told a lot about the things that were named. The name of the Susquehanna River was taken from an Indian word that meant "muddy water".

Since the Indian languages were not written down, the settlers chose their own spellings for Indian words. Sometimes the words were spelled differently by different national groups. Milkwaukee (a large city in Wisconsin) was called Miloaki by the Indians, and Meleoke by the French. Later it was spelled Melwakee.

Some Indian words were very hard to pronounce. The Indian name for a lake, which is now called Webster Lake, in Connecticut was Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg!

Some other places in America were named for their geography: Flat Rock, Arkansas; Stone Mountain, Georgia; Clear Lake, Iowa; Three Rivers, Massachusetts; Cavetown, Maryland; and Sandy, Oregon. Other places received their names from the first people people who lived there: Cartersville, Georgia, was named for a Carter family, and Williamstown, West Virginia, was probably founded by a Williams family.

Some place names were taken from other languages. More than 2,000 American cities have Spanish names. Some of them have not been changed: El Dorado, La Joya, Las Vegas and Los Angeles have stayed the same. Some spellings, however, have changed: Waco, the name of a city in Texas, comes from "hueco", a Spanish word that means "empty".

Many French names have been changed because they were difficult to pronounce correctly but Baton Rouge, Belle Chasse and New Orleans remain to remind us that the French were important in the history of Louisiana. And Des Plaines, Illinois, Eau Claire and La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Nalopelon and Terre Haute, Indiana, tell us that French people settled in other states too.   

Although the United States is part of the New World, many of its towns and cities have been named after cities in the Old World. Perhaps the settlers were homesick for their native countries. Looking at the names on a map of the United States is like reading a world atlas. There are twelve cities that are called Athens and ten are called Paris. There are nine Berlins, six Lisbons, six Cairos, six Romes, five Londons, five Mexicos, five Moscows, and five Limas. And there is a Scotland in South Dakota, a Norway in South Carolina, a Poland in Ohio, and a little Switzerland in North Carolina.    

There are many strange place names in the United States. There is Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, there is Money in Mississippi and there is Magazine in Arkansas. Pie is in West Virginia, Coldwater in Kansas and Flowery Branch in Georgia. And there is a little town in Arizona that sounds wonderful: Christmas!