Supersonic Man

January 3, 2012

European vs Indian state names

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 11:40 am

Some states have names of purely European derivation, such as New Hampshire or Georgia.  Others have names of native origin, such as Massachusetts or Hawaii.  Which category has more states in it?  Turns out, this question is not all that easy to answer.

First, let’s list the states whose names have definite unambiguous European origins.

California
Colorado
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Montana
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia

That’s 21 names. Now, the ones with names of definite native origin:

Alabama
Alaska
Arkansas
Connecticut
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kansas
Kentucky
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Wisconsin
Wyoming

That’s 24 names.  This list is ahead… but it doesn’t have a clear majority.  To settle the question, we have to look at the five remaining states.

Arizona
Idaho
Indiana
New Mexico
Oregon

Turns out, all of these five are debatable.  What about the name Indiana?  It’s from a term used in European languages, but the term refers to the native people.  How do you count it?  That’s a philosophical question.

What about New Mexico?  The name “México” is of native origin, but the state is named after a country with a European-derived language and culture.  Do you count it as native?

Arizona.  The origin of the name is said to be a Spanish corruption of an Aztec word.  Should you count that as native?  But others say it’s a Spanish corruption of an O’odham name, still others say it comes from Basque, and finally, it might just be short for “árida zona”, meaning dry zone, though you’d expect the adjective in that phrase to be placed after the noun.  So the fact is, no one actually knows whether the name is native or not.

The case of Oregon is even worse.  The name came into use long before there was a United States of America, among people who knew almost nothing about the area, and nobody knows where it came from at all.  There are various theories but they’re basically all guessing and hoping.

Idaho may be the one case where a land speculator just went and made a name up.  He at first claimed it was a Shoshone name, then that he just invented to sound Indianish, but then later someone argued that he got it from the Comanche term for “enemy”, because that’s how they saw the people who lived in that direction.  Again, no one actually knows.

So the odds are that there are probably more state names of native origin than of European or colonial origin, since if you count only two of these five as native that gives them the majority… but we can’t say for certain.

What we probably can do is link the cases of Indiana and New Mexico, since whatever principle you use to decide one of them will tend to place the other on the opposite side.  If you count New Mexico as native then Indiana looks colonial.  So that would make the balance 25 to 22 for the native side, giving them at least a tie, and they have the majority if any one of the three unknowns is actually native.  But it still isn’t settled.

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1 Comment »

  1. Indianish

    Comment by Art Boman — March 7, 2012 @ 9:24 pm | Reply


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