Where did Idaho come from?

While browsing meme pages and terrible or not-so-terrible maps, I came across this one:

Ignoring the notion of Proto-World, it appears that 48 of the 50 states plus Washington DC in the US of A have some sort of an etymology. After doing a bit of fact checking, that is correct.

But now we come to the elephant in the room. California and Idaho are the only two states that do not quite have their own etymology. At first, this seems quite suspicious. Surely every name (except certain file names you give to drafts or things like that) must have an origin, right? Even ghost words like the infamous “dord” did technically have its own origin of how it got bungled up and ended up as a dictionary entry for a brief period.

If we stretch the word “origin” to its absolute limits, then yes, Idaho and California do indeed have origins. Let us take a look at Idaho in this post first.

When we look at who first suggested the word Idaho as a name for the state of Idaho, leads certainly would point to this person called George M. Willing, in the early 1860s. He was a mining lobbyist, who suggested to Congress that the word “Idaho” was in fact of Shoshone language origin, which means “Gem of the Mountains” or “the sun comes from the mountains”. But that could not have been further from the truth.

Even Congress did their own bit of fact-checking. Residents tried to find any indigenous American language which had something remotely close to sounding like “Idaho”, including languages like Shoshone, Nez Perce or Nimipuutímt, Yakima, and Arapaho, but never got anywhere. In essence, people were looking for a word proposed by a lobbyist that did not really quite mean anything in any indigenous American language in the region.

And so they decided, in 1860, to name the territory Colorado. This name is actually of Spanish origin, meaning “coloured red” or “ruddy”, and yes, I am using the British spelling because of certain reasons. This likely refers to the colour of red sandstone we quite often associate the state of Colorado with. But in 1863, Congress decided to reverse this decision and started calling Idaho Idaho. Many then still believed that Idaho has indigenous American origins, despite not being the case, and so the name stuck.

Additionally, when Willing was called out on his misleading information, he also decided to change his course on where the supposed name came from. He supposedly had been inspired to coin the name when he met a girl named Ida. Why the “ho” suffix was added was unclear, and I do not wish to jump to conclusions.

While Idaho was still Colorado, there were several places named Idaho. Firstly, came a town called Idaho Springs in Colorado, and Idaho County in eastern Washington. The latter, however, was named after a steamship that launched on the Columbia River in 1860, the same year Willing’s claim was made. It is unclear if this name was given to the steamship before or after Willing’s proposal to Congress was made. If it was before, this would complicate things further on where exactly the name Idaho came from, as it could, perhaps, not even be Willing’s original idea. Some even suggested that it was this steamship that inspired the name for the state, but where or why this name was chosen for the steamship is still unknown.

So there we have it. A lobbyist, a steamship, and some land, having a series of what could be circular arguments over where the name actually comes from. Among any proposed theories by anyone, we can definitely be certain that Idaho does not have an indigenous American origin. That still leaves this mystery out in the open, waiting for an answer to where this name actually came from.

Next up, we will look at the various hypotheses and theories surrounding the other US State with no concrete etymology, that is, California.

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