Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Languages Behind US Place Names: Part 1

For a variety of interesting reasons, place names around the world tend to tell a story, whether they were founded in triumphant fashion or just seemed to always be there! Today we're taking a look at the origins of US place names, which come from a variety of different languages due to the backgrounds of the various indigenous groups that lived there and the colonists who arrived later and chose names from their own languages.

A statue of Lincoln (who was not indigenous) in
Chicago, Illinois.
Indigenous Languages

Long before European colonists and settlers arrived in the United States with their native languages, the country's diverse landscapes were home to a wide variety of indigenous groups. Most of these groups spoke their own indigenous languages, which they naturally used to name important places. Many US states are named for the largest indigenous tribe that lived there or take the name that the indigenous people were using before they arrived, which were often adapted to read better in the languages spoken by the colonists. In fact, the names of more than half of the states in the US are thought to come from indigenous languages.

While plenty of cities around the US have names that originated in indigenous languages, the largest is Chicago, which comes from either the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa (which means either "wild onion" or "wild garlic") or the Potawatomi word Gaa-zhigaagwanzhikaag.


It's hardly surprising that most place names in the US come from the English language since it's the most commonly spoken language in the country. In fact, many even duplicate place names from the UK due to the presence of British colonists early in the country's history. The largest US city, New York City, was named after the city of York in the UK. Before that, New York City was named New Amsterdam by Dutch settlers, but the British decided that wasn't right!

Houston, Texas is the second largest city in the US with a name of British origin. Though the city itself is named after General Sam Houston, his name comes from a town in Scotland. Houston actually means "Hugh's Town", so Houston is actually a place named after a guy who was named after a place!

Before the American Revolution, borrowing place names from the UK and using English suffixes was common. The suffixes of town, borough, and burgh (as well as their alternative spellings of ton, boro, and burg) were often used. If you've ever driven around the US, you know just how how popular these were.

A view of the expansive "City of Angels".

Spanish colonists and settlers have certainly left their mark on the Americas. The second most common language in the US has also been used to name the country's second largest city, LA. Of course, LA stands for Los Angeles, which is Spanish for The Angels, hence "City of Angels".

Other examples of Spanish place names in the US include San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco, all of which are named after saints. In fact, most place names in the US starting with "San" are likely to be of Spanish origin.


Using French in US place names became common after the American Revolution. French place names were common in several areas, but the suffix -ville (meaning town or city) only became popular after the American Revolution, especially in the southern and western Appalachian regions of the US. Jacksonville, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee are two of the largest cities to make use of this suffix.

Detroit is one of the largest cities in the US to have a fully French name. Detroit was originally détroit in French, which means "strait". There's also Charlotte, North Carolina, which sounds a bit French, but is actually named after the German-born British Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was married to King George III.

We think that's quite enough place name origins for one day. We'll be back on Friday with even more languages that inspired US place names! We look forward to seeing you then!

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