There are 50 states in the US, as well as a number of territories and overseas bases that are considered US sovereign soil. Of course, this means that the number of names one has to remember simply to have a basic handle on US geography is pretty darn enormous.
Further complicating things is the fact that the US covers landmasses that were initially settled by a huge number of disparate peoples, each of whom had their own language. These original residents were violently displaced as the nation was later colonized by a further set of people, who also came from different nations and spoke a variety of languages. This means that the etymological history of many US place names is enormously confusing. In some places, you need to know the traditional Native American names. In others, you need a handle on Spanish colonization. In still others, remembering the names of long-dead French or British kings and queens would be tremendously helpful. It's yet another way that American history complicates America's present.
Of course, none of this is an excuse in the eyes of the determined scholar of US history and geography. You don't just know the names, you can spell them, too ... or can you? It's time to prove it!
The Anishinaabe tribe called the Mississippi River a name roughly sounding like "Misi-Ziibi," meaning "Great River". The French couldn't say it, so the name was adjusted to be easier on their tongues.
Arkansas was probably named for the Quapaw people, with the name being adjusted again for the French tongue. This accounts for the silent S at the end, a common feature of French.
Minnesota is on the Great Lakes, and its original name is in Dakota. It translates as something like, "sky-tinted water" which is just a lovely way to describe the lakes!
California has a Spanish name, but it is very old as US state names go. It dates back to 1500, when Garcia Ordóñez de Montalvo wrote a book "The Adventures of Esplandián" (in Spanish) and named the state.
Weirdly enough, this land was considered to be "virgin" land, and named in honor of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth the First. Between her lover, the Earl of Dudley, and the fact that people had been living in the state for millennia, this is a triumph of inaccurate naming.
This state takes its name directly from a county on the English coast. Hampshire is a very nice and wealthy county, and actually does look quite a lot like the state named for it; both are charming farming regions.
The original residents of Arizona are the O'odham, who are several peoples who first settled the area. Arizona means "little spring" and probably meant a specific area where one was found.
Whether or not you know the Spanish language, you do at least know the word for mountain. Montana is it, you just need to add the ñ.
The Algonquian were the Native Americans who first claimed what is now Illinois. The obvious French influence on the name is clear; the word was a Native one meaning "men", that referred specifically to the locals.
Like Alabama, Oklahoma's name also honors the tragedy of the Trail of Tears. The displaced Choctaw people, having been forced out of their home in the Southeast, were marched in terrible conditions to what is now Oklahoma. In a triumph of the human spirit, they named it a Choctaw word meaning "red people," and made it a new home.
Tennessee is one of the harder state names to spell. This is probably because nobody is quite sure what the name means. It is possibly a Cherokee interpretation of a Yuchi word referring to a great bend in a river, but we're not sure; during all the displacement within that area, the truth was lost to history.
Louisiana is a very easy one to remember if you know anything about French history, because most of their kings around the time of the French Empire were called Louis. The particular Louis was Louis XIV, the Sun King, who built Versailles.
This state bears the name that its original Choctaw (or possibly Creek) residents gave it, which loosely translates to "vegetable pickers." The Choctaw were sadly removed from the state in large numbers by the Trail of Tears, but the name remains to honor those who had to leave their homes.
The Dakota are a people of the north plains. Their name survives intact in the states, North and South Dakota, which most of them still call home.
Wyoming may derive its name from a Delaware or an Algonquian word. It's possible that the literal meaning is "alternating mountains and valleys," which gets points for accuracy!
The Ioway people first settled this area and named the Iowa River. The state took its name from the river. The Ioway name is itself a somewhat modernized name, and may be originally from a Dakota word for "the sleepy ones."
Some say this name is Ojibwe in origin, and others say Wisconsin has a French name, though it is pronounced in a decidedly un-French manner. It refers to a river running through a red place, in reference to the Wisconsin River and the red soil of the riverbed.
Ohio is named for the Seneca people's term for the Ohio River. The word literally means "Great River" in Seneca.
The Aleut people who originally claimed Alaska see their name currently reflected in the Aleutian Islands. Alaska's name comes from their word for "mainland". It is the 49th state and was acquired from Russia.
Missouri is a translation of "town of dugout canoes." These river crafts were the preferred transport of the Missouri people, who like the Dakota, see their name on their home state largely unchanged.
Hawaii is the newest state, and has two conflicting accounts behind its name. One is that it was named for the Polynesian word "Hawaiki," meaning "Place of the gods." Others say it was named for Hawai'iloa, the islands' discoverer.
Rhode Island is not an island, but the place for which it is named is indeed one: Aquidneck Island. It looks a little like Rhodes in the Aegean Sea, so the Dutch colonists named it accordingly.
This state is a pretty easy one: It is named for the first American president, George Washington. Washington's name is found all over the country, in towns and of course the nation's capital city. Franklin and Jefferson are also extremely common place names in the US, for the same reason.
The Ojibwe people were the original inhabitants of Michigan, and of course, the state's most singular feature is Lake Michigan. The Ojibwe thus called the area "mishigamaa," which means "great lake."
Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, who named it for his own family, the Penns. It literally means "Penn's woods." Of course, they were not originally Penn's woods, which might explain the relatively forceful naming choice.
The people of Massachusetts named it for themselves, and when it became a state, it kept the name. The Massachusett people are still there, of course. The name originally means "people of the great hills," another exercise in truth in naming.
Some say that Maine is named to distinguish it from the islands outlying it - that is, the not-main parts. Others say that is is named in honor of the province of Mayne, France.
Lord de la Warr was the first governor of Jamestown, which was the first permanent colony the English put on the American continent, way back in 1607. That's how Delaware acquired its name!
Since the colonizing Europeans thought that they had arrived in India when they first landed on American shores, they called the local Native American peoples "Indians," a name that some still use today. Indiana is thus derived from that original geographical blooper.
Connecticut gets its name from an Eastern Algonquian word that means "beside the long tidal river." It is actually a lot easier to spell than the original transliteration, Quinnehtukqut.
Vert is the French word for green, and mont means mountain. Put them together and you have Vermont, the state of the green mountain. It's definitely a truthful name!
This state was named for Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I. While his reign was cut short (much like his body later was, in the amount of one head), in 1632 when the state was named, his wife at least was in pretty good standing with the people.
Georgia is one of the original Thirteen Colonies, and as such, it enjoys a name derived from an English king. In this case, the relevant monarch is George II, who passed away in 1760 and thus didn't stick around to see his former colony throw off his son's rule.
Kentucky is named for an Iroquois word that some say translates to "land of tomorrow" and others say means more like "on the field," The Iroquois include both the Mohawk and Seneca peoples and were a very powerful northeastern Native American confederacy, whose ideas inspired Ben Franklin in writing the US Constitution.
Idaho has two curious origins for its name. One is that the name is a joke made up by a settler just to confuse people. The other is that it is a Plains Apache insult for the Comanches, and means "enemy".
We do not know how Oregon got its name. The oldest use of it is in a petition by Major Robert Rogers of the English army, and it was then taken up by one Jonathan Carver just after the Revolutionary War.
The Ute people - a Native American people named thus by the Spanish, not by themselves - were the original inhabitants of Utah, and the name reflects this. It means "people of the mountains".
This name literally means "colored red" in Spanish. It refers to the Colorado River, which runs over ruddy-colored soil that is rich in iron. The name goes back to 1743, but the region has been inhabited for a likely 14,000 years.
The Channel that separates England and France contains an island named Jersey, that is a Crown Dependency (a semi-independent British territory). New Jersey is named for it. People who have visited both will note that they are not very similar.
Charles I of England was a terrible king, probably even worse than George III. He managed to upset the barons so much with his ludicrous overbearing ways that it plunged the nation into 10 years of civil war and resulted in Charles having his head cut off. However, his legacy in the US is a little better; the states of North and South Carolina are named for him.