Have you ever wondered where U.S. states got their names? While some state names like “New Jersey” or “New York” are easily explained as referring to former hometowns of early settlers, other names, like “California” or “Idaho” have more involved and complex stories.

Curious to learn about the unusual origins of U.S. state names? Here are four state name origins you won’t believe:


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The name “California” is derived from a Spanish legend about an island rich in diamonds and gold. In the legend, an island known as California is ruled by the powerful Queen Califa and is primarily populated by women who create tools and weapons from gold.

When Spanish explorer Hernán Cortéz initially reached California, he actually didn’t realize he had reached solid land. Yes indeed. He thought he’d found the legendary island of California.

While there weren’t legions of women forging tools from gold, perhaps the name was appropriate. As it would turn out centuries later, the non-island of California was, in fact, rich in gold.


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Did you know that Idaho’s name could actually be the result of a prank? In the late 1800s, a gentleman named George Willing moved out west. Originally hailing from Philadelphia, he moved westward to California to evade legal issues.

People in California liked him, and when he was working as a delegate, he took a hand in naming what was then merely a territory — “Idaho.” He first claimed the name was taken from a Native American word meaning “gem of the mountains.” However, it was later rumored that the name “Idaho” was actually an homage to a girl named Ida.

The name, which had long been in the common parlance, was used when the territory first attained statehood in 1890.


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The name Maryland was chosen in tribute to Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of England’s King Charles I. Mary is one of the commonly accepted variations on the name Maria. That part isn’t too unusual ... but when you consider the meaning of the name Mary, it becomes a little more complicated.

In Hebrew, the name Mary has a wide variety of meanings, ranging from “wished for child,” “rebellious,” or “sea of bitterness.” Then again, in Egyptian, the name Mary means “love” or “beloved.”

So what does that mean for the great state of Maryland? Could it mean that the innocent homage actually has deeper meaning? We may never know.


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We know that the name Oregon was first used in 1778 by Jonathan Carver and is credited to English officer Major Robert Rogers.

But what we don’t know is where the name actually came from. There are countless theories, including that it comes from an engraving error on the map, where the name Ouisiconsink was spelled “Ouricon-sint” and then further adapted into the name Oregon.

Another theory posits that the name was a combination of the Algonquin words “waregan” and “olighin,” meaning “beautiful river.” Others argue that it’s derived from the Shoshone words “Ogwa” for river and “Pe-on” for west, referring to “river of the west.”

There are even some downright wacky theories, like the idea that it’s derived from the word “oregano” or that it’s got something to do with the kingdom of Aragon. No matter which story you want to follow, Oregon was officially established as a state in 1859.

From possible pranks to hotly contested mysteries, some U.S. states have unexpected origins. What’s your favorite U.S. state name origin story?