How 15 major cities got their names

Published On 11/16/2014 Published On 11/16/2014

We all know the Big Apple used to be called New Amsterdam (at least we do if we pay attention to vodka ads) and was renamed New York, after the Duke of York, when the territory changed hands following the second Anglo-Dutch war. Or, at least, you do now.

But did you ever wonder what Tokyo means? Or why we have two Portlands? Or why nobody could come up with anything more interesting than Mexico City? Well, here are the answers to those questions, plus the history behind the names of a dozen more of the world’s most important cities.



When Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first shogun (hereditary military commander) of the Tokugawa shogunate, he made the small fishing village of Edo his capital. The city grew under his rule, and when the emperor returned to power in 1868, he moved the imperial palace from Kyoto (which was then the capital) to Edo and renamed the city Tokio, meaning East Capital.


Tel Aviv

The original name of this Jewish settlement in then-Palestine was Ahuzat Baiet -- which translates to “housing settlement”. It might've remained the most boring city name in history had settlers not decided to mix things up in the new-meets-old vision of Theodore Herzl, combining the Hebrew word for spring, "Aviv", with the word "Tel" to mean “man-made hill.”



The original settlers of America’s hipster Mecca -- Asa Lovejoy of Boston and Francis Pettygrove of Portland, ME -- both wanted to name this new settlement along the Columbia River after their hometowns. Instead of settling it with a duel, like they would have done in Nevada, the more-civilized new Oregonians settled on a coin flip, which was won by Pettygrove. Good thing, too, or else Blazers-Celtics games would have gotten really confusing.



In 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip discovered a supply of fresh water for his thirsty fleet in a cove near Port Jackson, today's Sydney Harbour. Though he’d originally planned to name his new freshwater-filled settlement Albion -- a poetic name for England -- he instead opted to call the bay Sydney Cove after the Secretary of State, Lord Sydney; a dude who never even set foot in Australia.



Learning how Rome got its name is kinda like meeting your favorite childhood baseball player: The legend is way cooler than reality. And since the only origin story involves Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the Roman god of war, Mars, being stolen from their mother by a vengeful uncle, dumped in the Tiber River, and rescued by a she-wolf who raised them until they were instructed to build a city on the site where they were rescued, well... let’s just go with that.


Rio De Janeiro

So, there is no actual “River of January”, the name Portuguese explorers gave to Guanabara Bay after the month in which they discovered it. Nope, turns out they incorrectly assumed the bay was the mouth of a giant river and named the area "Rio de Janeiro" without bothering to see if a river even existed.



The Russian capital sits on the Moscva River, which is obviously where the city's name comes from. There are a couple of theories as to where the name Moscva comes from, however. The first postulates that it’s a derivative of a Finno-Ugric name meaning “river of" either cows, bears or darkness. Nobody’s really sure which, but all seems pretty appropriate. The other, more popular theory says the name comes from a Slavic word meaning dank, swampy river.


Mexico City

When Hernan Cortes conquered the natives in Tenochtitlan and pretty much wiped the city out of existence, they wanted a new name for the rebuilt, Spanish colonial city. Since the occupying tribe were known as the Mexica, and Cortes referred to the city as Mejica y Tenochtitlan, the new city was referred to as Ciudad de Mexico. That's "Mexico City", if you don't have Univision.



Much as we’d like to tell you this is an ancient Latin word meaning “land of surly waiters,” it’s actually named after the Celtic Parisii tribe, the first to inhabit the island in the middle of the Seine around the middle of the third century BC.


Hong Kong

The city’s name is based on the Cantonese pronunciation of characters that mean “fragrant harbor”. And no, they didn’t predict the smell of commercial freighters hundreds of years ahead of time. The name most likely refers to Hong Kong’s early role as a port from which they exported native agarwood to the northern provinces, where it was used to make fragrances and added to wine/liquor for flavor.


Los Angeles

It’s pretty widely known that the City of Angels got its name from Spanish settlers so taken with its beauty (before it was all smog and sprawl) that they considered it heaven on Earth. The original name, however, was a lot longer: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porcincula, or "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion”. Which they realized would be a lot of letters to fit on a Dodgers hat, so they just shortened it to Los Angeles.



Though myths abound about exiled Trojans and a guy named King Lud, the name is actually derived from the Romans who founded the settlement around 43AD and called it Londinium. What is Londinium? No, not an element on the periodic table that you brain-dumped after 10th grade chemistry, but more likely a form of the Celtic name for the city, which was believed to have been either the name of a local chief or a derivative of "lond", the Celtic word for "wild".



You ever wonder why you go into a restaurant and never order Beijing duck? Or why your grandma still calls it Peking? Well, since Chinese characters don’t much lend themselves to transliteration, English interpretations of how the name is pronounced have changed over the years; “Beijing” is about as close as we get now to saying it like the Chinese. The current name was given to the city during the Ming Dynasty by Zhu Di, who moved his capital there.



It’s no wonder so much great Italian food comes out of Chicago, considering its name comes from the French pronunciation of an Indian word meaning “wild garlic.” Before the banks of Lake Michigan were covered with concrete and CTA tracks, it was low-lying swampland ripe for the cultivation of products like onions and garlic, and the Miami-Illinois Indians named it accordingly. 



King Rama I -- who founded this capital city -- must not have anticipated those tiny boxes on Fedex forms when he named the city “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”, the longest city name in the world. It translates to:

“The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn”

And you thought LA's original name was long. Locals just call it “Krung Tep” and many Thais aren't familiar with the giggle-inducing name westerners use: Bangkok, a word which means “village of wild plums” and refers to the original site of the Siamese capital west of the Chao Phyra
River in Thonburi.



Learn More