A Polyglot’s Guide to Place Names of Canada & the United States

Today we have a guest post by Amit Raj

Wherever you find yourself in the States or Canada, you are likely to find most voices around you are speaking in English, French, Spanish, or another modern European language. But dotted among the vocabulary of the typical American will be a number of words that we all profess to understand, without knowing their true meaning: place names!

With their roots in native languages or their meanings and pronunciations altered over the decades and centuries, these often romantic-sounding words instantly conjure a mental picture of lakes, mountains, big cities or sleepy villages, depending on that place’s prevailing image.

Funnily enough, while these place names conjure up such landscapes by association, the original meaning of the names – almost forgotten over time – often refer quite literally to the physical characteristics of the place. For example, the state of Arizona seems to be named for a native word for ‘small spring’ while, within that state, Tucson is a Pima O’odham word meaning ‘black base’ – and no wonder since that city lives in the shadow of nearby Black Mountain.

Meanwhile, the Canadian province of Saskatchewan is quite simply named for the Saskatchewan River that runs across it. That river is in turn named after itself, given that Saskatchewan if a Cree aboriginal word meaning “swift flowing river”.

There are few more pleasurable pastimes for the sworn word addict than tracing the detailed etymology of a curious word or phrase, and the place names of Canada and the United States can become a real wormhole once you get started. This new infographic from Expedia is a great starting point, being as it is a detailed map of the region with informed suggestions on what a number of place names truly mean. Get stuck in, learn a bit about where you’re from, and maybe you’ll even find some conclusions to argue with!

The Literal Translation of Places in Canada & the United States

The Literal Translation of Places in Canada & the United States, courtesy of Expedia.ca

This entry was posted in English, French, Language, Spanish.

One Response to A Polyglot’s Guide to Place Names of Canada & the United States

  1. Jim M. says:

    There’s a whole book of these, called something like the Atlas of True Names, and they’re delightful. The publisher is British, and they did Britain and the world first. I ordered one and got a note back from someone who put “Land of the Tattooed Ones” under her signature. They later published one for North America.

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