Place Names of New York City

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12021

If you don't live in New York City, why would you care about how it got its name? Finding the name of your own locale can unlock a trove of historical and cultural treasures you never knew existed!


United States

learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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What is so “new” about “New York,” and how does it relate to the “old” York? What can place names tell us about history?

Names are a quick and easy way to identify people, places, and things.

They are usually short, maybe one-, two-, or three-syllables long, yet a name can tell a whole long, complicated story. Your family name may be connected to a centuries-long history, carrying information from a distant time and place and explaining important family details, like heritage, faith, and work.

This same logic applies to place names. There are few places in the United States that have the rich diversity of place names like New York City. As the entry point for millions upon millions of immigrants and visitors from all around the world, this cultural capital of the United States has absorbed and embraced the cultures, languages, and names that people have brought with them. The heritage and history of this great city can be uncovered by exploring the names of neighborhoods, streets, bridges, buildings, and other locations.

The science of investigating place names is called toponymy or toponomastics, two words you may need to practice in order to pronounce! Read more about this fascinating area of study in The History of Place Names, by Alexander S. Howson, courtesy of Historic UK, and prepare yourself to become a real toponymist, or scholar of place names. As you read, write down answers to the following questions:

  • What clues about history can we learn from place names?
  • What kinds of information might you need to decipher certain place names?
  • How far back in history can place names take us?

Collect information to answer the questions. Share your answers with your parent or teacher, then reflect on the following questions and discuss:

  • Why do place names seem to “stick” with a place over a very long period of time?
  • What sources of information could help reveal the meaning of place names?
  • What are some of the place names you would like to know more about?

Every place has its own unique history revealed by place names.

In the Got It? section, explore the place names of one of the most diverse and historic cities in America, New York City.

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