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Is Idaho an Indian name for potato?

IN the United States, 26 of the states have names of Indian origin. That adds up to a lot of territory and leaves the nation with an indelible memorial to Indian heritage. I started to think about this when sitting in a restaurant next to a family with a precocious six-year-old who held forth like a 26-year-old going on 40. While playing with the food on his plate, he wanted to know if Idaho was the Indian name for potato. His father didn't think so, not knowing any Irish Indians.

When I got home I went over the names of the states and was surprised to discover that about 26 are related to Indian beginnings.

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One might think, with the great westward surge across the continent, that the names of states would tend to commemorate American leaders - people like John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Or even lesser lights such as Lewis and Clark, Gen. George Custer, or Daniel Boone.

But people must have preferred the sound of Indian names, not only in the West but in the East, where Massachusetts and Connecticut are found.

Of course English names did have some success. Pennsylvania was named for William Penn. But there were also notable failures. An effort was made to name a new states after Benjamin Franklin, and for several years a state was known as Frankland. But the Cherokee villages along the riverbanks known as tanasi finally prevailed and the name that endured is Tennessee. It does have a better sound.

Then there is Utah, a name derived from a Navajo word for a Shoshone tribe that lived up on the higher ground. The Mormons, however, wanted to have the state called Deseret, a word in the Book of Mormon that means ``Land of the Honeybees.'' Congress decided against it, so the Indian word, Utah, is still used today.

Somehow there seems to be more music in the Indian words than in the English translation.

When people speak of Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Ohio, they may be aware of the lovely sound of the words without realizing they are continuing to keep alive the way the various Indian tribes described the land: ``beautiful land,'' ``broad water,'' ``muddy water,'' and ``good river.''

It's time Americans gave credit to the language of the Omahas, Algonquins, and the Iroquois for the better words for naming the states. For instance, there is Michigan. The word is a beautiful Chippewa phrase with a pleasing melody. Much better than ``great water.''

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Now if only all the states could remain as beautiful as the way the Indians saw them.

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