9 Surprising Literal Translations of U.S. Cities


In many countries, they’re named after famous heroes, saints, or even military dictators. Some cities are named after points of interest, or even literal words of the area around it, like “Boulder”.

But with the U.S. as one of the most diverse countries in the world – someone from every country lives in the U.S. – it makes for tons of languages that are foreign to your average citizen.

With over 50 million U.S. citizens traveling internally, it’s good to know a bit of history before you go to a new city.

This infographic from Reservations.com highlights some of the most surprising literal translations of city names throughout the United States.

Here are a few of the from the article:

1. Chicago, IL – Translates to “Stinky Onion”

A close up of a sign

Description automatically generated

Ok, we have to start with our favorite. Chicago’s name is a mashup of French and Algonquian (Native American), that roughly translates to “stinky onion”.

Historical records show a wild variety of onions grew naturally in this area of the state and thus influence the onion lasted.

There’s still much debate about the origin of the word, but through our research we found this name to be the most compelling.

2. Palo Alto, CA – Translates to “Tall Stick”

literal name of palo alto - tall stick

Early California was founded by Spanish missionaries, and thus, they got first dibs on naming the cities as they were born. While California has a rich cultural influence from the Spanish and Mexican settlers, a good amount of the citizen probably couldn’t translate “Palo Alto” – or at least never thought about it!

Furthermore, what’s interesting about this one is the place Palo Alto has held in Silicon Valley as the seat of the headquarters of many tech companies. It’s also interesting to think of the world of difference there is in the culture between the modern tech world and the historical impact of the California missions on the region. Cultures mix and collide, and create fascinating results.

3. Des Moines, IA – Translates to “Of the Monks”

literal name of des moines - of the monks

De Moines, IA doesn’t strike you as a hub of French culture, but this region was battleground for French and English influence in the early days of the nation.

There’s a strong French influence in certain pockets of the U.S., but overall there’s a limited number of cities and regions in the French language. Compared to Canada, it’s a small percentage of the U.S. Des Moines, is one of those anomalies.

The region was originally settled in part by Trappist monks (Moines de la Trappe) who established a monastery at the mouth of the Des Moines River. These French-speaking monks had an influence on the region that we still have today, although we normally don’t think of Iowa as a hot-spot of international cultures.

The other part I love is that the origin of the city name is up for debate, another hallmark of some of the challenges of translation. The Native American Algonquian name for the river was Moingona, which may have had an influence on the final city name. We can agree that language is beautiful.

4. Hilo, HI – Translates to “To Twist”

literal name of hilo - to twist

Hawaii has an exotic place in the hearts of many travelers, and worldwide it has an aura of paradise and unique history.

On the light side of things, the “hula” and “hula hoop” have very strong connections to Hawaii. Connected to that idea is the name of Hilo.

The translation of Hilo is “to twist”, which may refer either the twisting of humans (seen above) or twisting in the sense of “braiding” or “threading”. Either way, it’s one of our favorite translations.

Hawaiians are very proud of their language, and extensive information has been recorded about Hawaiian place names and their literal translation. The Hawaiian Electronic Library is a fascinating online database with more names than you can memorize. Definitely worth perusing before your next Hawaiian vacation!


There are so many interesting translations of cities across the U.S. and the world – this is just a summary of some of the best. Check out the full infographic to read the rest – and let us know your favorites!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *