Nine Non-English Origins of U.S. City Names

Indian for “Wild Onion”

There are over 19,000 incorporated municipalities in the United States. I have no idea how many of them have English-based names. It may not even be a majority. But since English is still the primary language of this country, it's easy to assume that it's the default source for most of our city names, e.g., all the Springfields, Fairviews, Greenvilles and Newports, not to mention larger places like New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, and so on. But this country is a true melting pot of cultures and languages, as evidenced by the many cities and townships whose names are derived from other languages.

  1. Indian (aboriginal): Since the Native Americans were here first, it stands to reason that a great deal of American place names, including over half of the states, have Indian origins. Among the bigger cities: Chicago ("wild onion"), Seattle (chief of the Duwamish tribe), Milwaukee ("gathering place"), Omaha ("bluff dwellers"), Tucson ("the base of the black hill"), and Miami ("big water").
  2. Spanish: California, Texas and the Southwestern states may actually have more Spanish-named cities than English ones. Even discounting the many named for Catholic saints (San Francisco, Santa Fe, etc.), you've got Los Angeles ("the angels" – the short version of our very long original name), Las Vegas ("the meadows"), El Paso ("the pass"), Amarillo ("yellow"), and places named after cities in Spain, such as Toledo and Albuquerque.
  3. French: A great deal of our fair nation was settled by the French, so it should be no surprise that their legacy lives on in cities like St. Louis (named for 13th century French king Louis IX), Louisville (named for 18th century French king Louis XVI), Detroit ("strait"), Baton Rouge ("red stick"), Boise ("woods"), Des Moines ("of the monks"), Terre Haute ("high ground"), and Montpelier (named for a town in southern France).
  4. Egyptian: Now things are getting interesting. Since it's not like Egyptian explorers ever sailed their boats to the US, the city of Memphis has purely romantic origins: Andrew Jackson named it after the ancient Egyptian capital because of its location on the Nile-like Mississippi. Little Cairo, IL (though the locals pronounce it "KAY-roh") is another Egyptian-derived town.
  5. Greek: Equally romantic are the Greek origins of Philadelphia (literally, "brotherly love"), Phoenix, Olympia, Homer, Helena, and of course Athens. Even Atlanta is Greek-derived: it was named for the Atlantic Ocean (funny, since it's a land-locked town), which itself was named after the mythical titan Atlas.
  6. German: Though Teutonic blood runs strong in American veins, particularly in the Midwest, German settlers arrived relatively late to the New World, and most places they settled had already been established. The few US cities with German names include Anaheim, CA (itself a hybrid of "Santa Ana" and the German word for "home"); Schaumburg, IL; and Bismarck, ND. Technically, the largest German-named American city is Charlotte, NC. It honors Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the German-born wife of England's King George III, who was still reigning over the American colonies when Charlotte was founded.
  7. Italian: Since Christopher Columbus (a.k.a. Cristoforo Colombo) is credited with "discovering" the Americas, cities like Columbus, OH and Columbia, SC were named for this Italian. Otherwise, we've got a bunch of Romes; Naples, FL; Venice, CA (officially part of Los Angeles); and my own hometown of Cupertino (Apple's headquarters), which has somewhat tortuous origins in the Italian municipality of Copertino. I'll also accept Latin-derived names such as Corpus Christi, TX; Augusta, GA; and Cincinnati, OH.
  8. Russian: It's unusual that there would be American city names with Russian roots, but Saint Petersburg, FL was named by its cofounder Peter Demens for the Russian metropolis where he grew up. Odessa, TX was named by Russian/Ukrainian railroad workers who said it reminded them of home. Other connections are more muddled. Sebastopol, CA has an outrageous origin story: it's said that a legendary bar fight in town, then known as Pinegrove, was likened to the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. Meanwhile, Moscow, ID was reportedly named by postmaster Samuel Neff, who was born in the even smaller Moscow, PA.
  9. And now for some really unlikely origins: Canton, OH was named after the Canton region of China. Antioch, CA took its name from the Biblical Turkish city. Then there are the Pennsylvania towns of Lebanon and Bethlehem. As for the Dutch? Well, whereas New York – the former New Amsterdam – shows its Dutch roots in neighborhoods like Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Staten Island, Stuyvesant, and Coney Island, actual Dutch city names in the US (outside of some small communities in NY state) are almost nonexistent. Holland, MI is the best I can give you.