How the States Got Their Names

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12299

Some state names are hard to pronounce, while others imply there must be an old York, Jersey, Mexico, and Hampshire somewhere. Learn the reasons and history behind why states got the names they have!


United States

learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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What is your name? Did your parents name you after another relative or other person, or maybe a favorite place? How do places get their names? They don't have parents!

Imagine you are a great explorer, and one day you discover a whole new land.

There aren't many inhabitants of this land, so you decide to begin a village. More and more people move there, enough that you can start another village, and another. Soon, there are many people living in your land and they need to be able to locate one another. You need to give names to places.

  • Where can you get good ideas for place names?

Read more about how places get their names using the short reading below. As you read, write down answers to the following questions:

  • What is the name of the study of place-names?
  • What are some of the ways places can get their names?
  • What sources can toponymists use to find out about place-names?

Now, take a look at the reading below and collect the information:

The names of places can be very interesting, and they can give us clues about the events and people of history.

  • Did you know that there is a town in the state of New Mexico called, "Truth or Consequences," or that there is a village in Pennsylvania called, "Bird-In-Hand?"
  • Where did such unusual names come from? Where do any place names come from?

Toponymy is the study of the ways in which places are named. There are many different ways to name a place. Places can be named after the people who discovered them, famous or important people who influenced the group who settled there, older native names for the location, borrowed place-names from other locations, or even completely made-up names! The city-name "Truth or Consequences" actually came from a television game show in the 1950s. "Bird-In-Hand" was named after one of the village founders used the famous expression, "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush."

The study of place-names and their origins is called toponymy, and the person who works to uncover place names is called a toponymist. Toponymists collect many different kinds of information to find out how places got their names, including interviews with local residents, government records, books and various print materials, monuments, and other sources. Place names can reveal fun and interesting stories about the past!

Share the information you found with your parent or teacher, then discuss these questions together:

  • What are some of the place names in your area?
  • Where do you think these names came from?
  • How do you think the U.S. states got their names?

The name of a place can change many times throughout history, or it can stay the same over thousands of years. The meanings of some place names have been lost over time, and in some cases, the languages they came from are now extinct!

In the Got It? section, learn all about the origins of the names of the U.S. states.

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