Photo: WordTips

The Literal Translation of Every State and Major City in the US

United States Maps + Infographics
by Katie Scott Aiton Mar 25, 2024

Have you ever considered where the name of your state or city comes from? Every place in the US has a story behind its title, and the folks at WordTips have put together a selection of informative maps to help trivia and etymology nerds by listing the literal translation of state names and those of our major cities.

From Missoula (River of Ambush) in Montana and Manchester (Breast-like Hill) in New Hampshire, the origin of place titles across the US come from Indigenous languages, European settlers, and geographical features. To help you puzzle out a tricky crossword clue or score points in the next geography round at games night, here are the meanings behind the names of each US state, states capital and 178 of the biggest cities across the US.

Lead infographic of literal translation of state names

Photo: WordTips

Finding the etymology of place names is not a simple task. WordTips looked at a variety of sources. Drawing from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the American Library Association, and regional news reports, the results were equated from at least two matching sources. Many states and cities have more than one story behind their title, but these are the most popular.

Here are some of the most interesting findings for state names:

  • Arizona: (Place of the Small Spring): Scholars believe the name Arizona stems from a native language, likely the Tohono O’odham spoken by Indigenous people in the region. The orginal name “Al Shon” translates to “place of little spring.”
  • Iowa (Sleepy Ones): This name might have originated from a Dakota word for the Ioway tribe, possibly meaning “beautiful land” or even “sleepy ones,” depending on interpretation.
  • Massachusetts (Great Hill Small Place): Massachusetts comes from an Algonquian word meaning “at the great hill.”
  • Texas (Friend): The name Texas comes from the Caddo word “teysha” or “tayasha” which means “friend” or “ally” in the language.
  • Wyoming (On the Great Plain): This might seem straightforward, but it’s derived from a Munsee Delaware language term “xwe:wamenk,” which translates to “at the big river flat.”
infographic of literal translation of northeast city names

Photo: WordTips

The names of northeastern cities like Boston (Botolph’s Stone) and Baltimore (Townland of the Big House) are steeped in history. Philadelphia’s name originates from its founder, William Penn, and his vision for the city. The name itself comes from two ancient Greek words: “philos” meaning love or beloved, and “adelphos” meaning brother. So, Philadelphia literally translates to “brotherly love”.

infographic of literal translation of northwest city names

Photo: WordTips

In the northwest, Salem (Peace) and Missoula (River of Ambush) are a curious find, whereas Portland (Land Surrounding a Habor) is more literal.

infographic of literal translation of southeast city names

Photo: WordTips

The southeastern city, Charleston translates to King Charles II Town. Many places around the world are named after British royalty. In the case of Charleston, the city was founded in 1670 during King Charles II’s reign. To honor the king, the eight original proprietors named the settlement Charles Town, which later evolved into present-day Charleston.

infographic of literal translation of southwest city names

Photo: WordTips

Las Vegas translates directly to “The Meadows” in Spanish. This name originated from the area’s natural characteristics before it became the gambling capital we know today. Early Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to encounter this desert oasis. Las Vegas Valley wasn’t always a desert landscape. Underground springs provided a vital source of water, allowing wild grasses to flourish in the nutrient-rich soil.

infographic of literal translation of midwest city names

Photo: WordTips

More commercial names, such as City of the Sleepy Ones (Iowa City) and Place of the White Onion (Chicago), are found in the Midwest. Omaha (Upstream People) refers to the Omaha Tribe, Indigenous people who resided in what is now northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. The name likely refers to their geographical location relative to other tribes along the Missouri River.

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