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What’s in a place name?

George Washington, portrait painting by Constable-Hamilton, 1794. From the New York Public Library. Picture: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on the names of English counties and US states.

It makes perfectly good sense that the names of many of the counties of England should have their origins in the dominant language of the country, English. Rather obviously, Norfolk was originally two English words, north folk, and similarly Suffolk derives from south folk. Essex was the realm of the East Saxons, with Middlesex and Sussex being the homelands of the Middle and South Saxons. And Northumberland obviously meant what it says, the land north of the River Humber.

In contrast, on the other side of the Atlantic, there are not many American states which have names that are of an English-language origin, in spite of the fact that the USA is also predominantly an anglophone country. Of the few that are English, Washington was named after George Washington, whose surname derives from an English place-name found in both County Durham and Sussex; Maryland was called after the (French) wife of King Charles I, Henrietta Maria; and New Hampshire was named for the English county (the ‘shire of Hamtun’, the old name for Southampton).

But, while the new in New York is also obviously English, the English city of York’s name is from Old Norse Jórvik, which in turn came from the Latin name Eboracum, itself derived from an earlier Brittonic Celtic name. And the second element of New Jersey is also not English: the French name for our Channel Island came from the Old Norse language of the Viking Normans. The -ey ending meant ‘island’, as it does also in Guernsey and Alderney (and Orkney): the modern Icelandic word for ‘island’ is eyja, and the Norwegian is øy.

Some American state names come from other European languages. Rhode Island was probably originally Dutch Rood Eiland, ‘red island’. Vermont is from 17th-century French vert mont, ‘green mountain’. And Spanish contributed several state names. Nevada is derived from the Spanish verb nevar, ‘to snow’: nevado is its past participle, literally ‘snowed’ – in English ‘snowy’ – with nevada being the feminine form, as in tierra nevada, ‘snowy land’.

Colorado is similarly from the masculine past participle of the verb colorar, to colour’, so literally ‘coloured’.

In Spanish it often also means ‘red, rosy’: ponerse colorado signifies ‘to blush’, and rio colorado would mean ‘red river’. Florida is the feminine form of the past participle of the no-longer used Old Spanish verb florir, ‘to flower’. And Montana was originally montaña, ‘mountain’. California is also from Spanish, although the origin of the word is disputed.

But more than half of the names of US states are derived from indigenous Native American languages which were spoken in the Americas tens of thousands of years before the arrival of any European language.

Connecticut, perhaps meaning ‘long river’, is from Mohican, a member of the Algonquian language family. Michigan comes from another Algonquian language, Ojibwe, also known as Ojibwa and Chippewa.

Missouri is from yet another Algonquian language, Miami-Illinois, as is Illinois itself. Kentucky is probably from an Iroquoian language, perhaps meaning ‘prairie’.

Alabama originally came from Choctaw, a Muskogean language; so did Oklahoma. And the Sioux language has given us the second element of North and South Dakota.

This predominance of indigenous state names in the USA raises the interesting question of whether there are any equivalent pre-English county names in England.

The English language arrived in this country only about 1,500 years ago, while the Brittonic Celtic language, the ancestor of Welsh, was spoken here well before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, maybe as much as 4,000 years earlier.

In fact, there are at least two pre-English county names which parallel the indigenous American names. Kent is derived from the name of the Celtic tribe, the Cantiaci, whose name also appears in Canterbury. And Devon comes from Dumnonia, the name of the Celtic kingdom of the Dumnonii people which used to cover what is now Cornwall, Devon and part of western Somerset.