How do place names differ across America?

by Lia Prins I used to travel to the East coast occasionally for work, and was always struck by how different the names of the towns there were, compared to where I grew up in Washington state. Whereas the nomenclature of the Northwest seemed to be based on Native American languages (if not their Anglicized, Latin-character-converted equivalents), most monikers in the East sounded purely English to my ear. Now, after living in the San Francisco Bay Area — the naming practices of which seem to have been heavily (though unwittingly) influenced by several Spanish saints — I often wonder about the various pockets of American place-name patterns: How heterogeneous are the names of our nation’s locations, and on what dimensions? What stories are behind these toponyms, and how do they speak to the places they represent?

Rather than rely on my own limited anecdotes to answer these questions, I went in search of data. Although state names would constitute too small a dataset to isolate interesting trends, the fact that there are approximately 3,000 counties in the US made them (and their parish , borough , census area , independent city , and district counterparts) a much more promising starting point for my investigation into American toponyms . I found a list of most counties on Wikipedia, 1 along with a brief etymology for each. From there I manually classified each county by both the category and subcategory its name fell into (within a set of my own devising), and its language, if available. If language wasn’t mentioned and I couldn’t determine it myself from context, I conducted further research (Googling) to at least label it as Indigenous or non-Indigenous.

Color counties by:

Category
Language

This map shows the distribution of counties across the US based on what they’re named for (category), or the language they’re named in (use the toggle to switch between the two).

Geomapping both attributes of my newly minted dataset — category and language — exposed the fact that the vast majority of counties are named for people, specifically men, and of European heritage (or at least with European surnames).

Although women-honoring toponyms account for only 1.1% of all counties, they are represented slightly higher in states that themselves possess feminine names: Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana (although the latter was actually named for French King Louis XIV).

Of those counties commemorating groups of people, nearly all bear Indigenous names. However, digging into their etymologies reveals that they’re not necessarily named in the language of the group they’re named for: to list a couple, the names of Wisconsin’s Outagamie and Ozaukee counties derive from Ojibwe words for their neighboring Meskwaki people (“dwellers on the other side of the stream”) and Sauk people, respectively. Even the few counties in this category christened with European names are likely to characterize Native American peoples — but based on what white settlers called them, not what they called themselves. For example, the names of Pend Oreille County, Washington; Nez Perce County, Idaho; and the two Huron Counties, in Michigan and Ohio; all originated from French terms used to describe the locals. Pend d’oreille means “hang from ear”, in reference to the Q’lispé people’s shell earrings, while nez percé alluded to the Niimíipuu people’s pierced noses. Huron was an attribution to the way the Wyandot people dressed their hair.

A series of US maps, each showing the counties named for men (2,086), groups of people (181), women (36), bodies of water (285), geologic features (100), plants or animals (46), natural resources (32), places within America (153), places outside of America (99), abstract concepts (61), objects (5), and unknown reasons (37), respectively. View larger

These maps show a more detailed breakdown of what counties are named for; each dot represents one county.

Clusters of counties named for English towns and regions blanket the Northeastern seaboard (as was my business-travel-induced hunch), particularly around Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts — the two earliest British settlements on the continent. Likewise, Spanish names are common in the Southwest and areas that were founded after the Mexican-American War. French names are sprinkled throughout several states, but primarily within those whose land was acquired via the Louisiana purchase. In fact, French-named counties are more highly concentrated in Louisiana itself, as well as the Great Lakes region. The former served as the French headquarters for New France before it came under American control as part of the titular Louisiana Purchase; the latter was popular with fur trappers seeking to supply France’s fashion demands.

A series of US maps, showing the counties named in each of the following languages: English (186), Spanish (121), French (90), Ojibwe (21), Lenape (17), and Muscogee (15), respectively. View larger

These maps show the six most common languages appearing in county names. Each dot represents one county; each map is colored according to whether or not that language is Indigenous.

So, what’s in a (county) name? Quite a bit, it would seem. And yet at the same time, not nearly enough.

The name assigned to the Q’lispé people and the land they occupied, and ultimately the county that land would become — Pend Oreille — originated from outsiders observing a single salient attribute of their appearance. It sounds rather reductive when compared to their own name for themselves: Q’lispé literally means “the people”. Jefferson Davis could not have hoped to (and — to put it excessively mildly for brevity — actively went out of his way not to) represent all citizens of the four counties bearing his name, let alone the more than 15,000 Black people at the times of the counties foundings, nor those at the time of this writing. The same can be said of over 60 other counties currently commemorating Confederates. 2 In an earlier act of exclusion, New York County was christened by none other than the Duke of York, himself, for himself — alone.

Conversely, consider Kay County, Oklahoma (originally K County), its name the relic of an arbitrary, alphabetical indexing system, and by all rights, the poster child for blameless neutrality. Though quaint and quirky as a one-off tale of temporary toponymy gone awry, its original name was, by design, meaningless and forced. What if all counties shared its same story? We’d essentially have county barcodes in place of county names, and what a languishing landscape that would paint (literally, too — my maps would all be one color!).

Names will always be imperfect embodiments of the places and people they stand for. The good news is that (after painstakingly encoding several thousand lines of unstructured data), it’s possible to bring to light anecdotes of anthropological allure as well as patterns of inequity, which in turn often serve as evidence for change.


Glossary

borough / burr-oh / play audio pronunciation

Historically, a small administrative district typically having its own church and priest, which grew out of Louisiana’s heavily Roman Catholic-influenced past. The name “parish” has remained, although they function similarly to counties. Definition from World Atlas.

census area

Most of Alaska’s land is divided into county-equivalents called boroughs. The remainder of the land is referred to as “The Unorganized Borough”; however, it is not actually a borough itself, as it forgoes that level of government structure. It is divided into 11 census areas, each roughly corresponding to an election district. These areas exist solely for the purposes of statistical analysis and presentation; they have no government of their own. Definition from Wikipedia.

county

An administrative or political subdivision of a state that consists of a geographic region with specific boundaries and usually some level of governmental authority. The term “county” is used in 48 US states, while Louisiana and Alaska have functionally equivalent subdivisions called parishes and boroughs, respectively. Definition from Wikipedia.

district

The District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) is outside the jurisdiction of any state, so has a special status, but is considered a county equivalent by the United States Census Bureau.

independent city

A city that is not in the territory of any county or counties and is considered a primary administrative division of its state. Definition from census.gov.

Meskwaki / muh-skwah-kee / play audio pronunciation

The Meskwaki Nation people are of Algonquian origin from the Eastern Woodland Culture areas and have been historically located in the St. Lawrence River Valley, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. After fighting in the Fox Wars and being relocated multiple times, the Meskwaki formally purchased land in Tama County, Iowa, which gave formal federal identity to the Meskwaki people as the “Sac & Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa.” Definition from the Meskwaki Nation website.

Ojibwe / oh-jeeb-way / play audio pronunciation

The Ojibwe (also Ojibwa, Ojibway and Chippewa) are an Indigenous people in the United States and Canada who are part of a larger cultural group known as the Anishinaabeg. Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwemowin, the Ojibwe / Ojibwa language, or Chippewa) is an Indigenous language originally spoken by the Ojibwe people. According to the 2016 Census, 28,130 people are listed as speaking Anishinaabemowin. Definition from The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Outagamie / out-uh-gamm-ee / play audio pronunciation

A French transliteration of “Utagami”, the Ojibwe term for the Meskwaki people, meaning “dwellers on the other side of the stream”, referring to their historic habitation along the St. Lawrence River. Definition from Wikipedia.

Ozaukee / oh-zock-ee / play audio pronunciation

From “Ozaagii”, the Ojibwe name for the Sauk people. Definition from Wikipedia.

parish

Historically, a small administrative district typically having its own church and priest, which grew out of Louisiana’s heavily Roman Catholic-influenced past. The name “parish” has remained, although they function similarly to counties. Definition from World Atlas.

Sauk / sock / play audio pronunciation

“Sauk” refers to the group’s exonym (what others call them), “Ozaagii”, used by neighboring Ojibwe people to mean “those at the outlet” of the Saginaw River. This name was transliterated by the French, and eventually, the English, as “Sauk”. The group’s autonym (what they call themselves), “Oθaakiiwaki” means “people of the yellow earth.” Definition from Ohio History Central.

toponym / top-uh-nimm /

A place name. Definition from Oxford Languages.

Notes

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