How Did Illinois Get Its Name?

did-illinois-its-name Credit: Chris Mellor/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

While most accounts agree that the state name "Illinois" comes from the tribe of Native Americans living there when the area was first explored by Europeans, exactly who brought the name into the English language is not clear. Folk etymologies have arisen to explain the name, although they do not necessarily align with the linguistic evidence.

The name "Illinois" comes from the Ojibwe word "ilinwe" or its plural, "ilinwek." When French explorers and missionaries came to the region, they transliterated the "-we" ending as "-ois" in keeping with French pronunciation at the time. While folk etymologies have reported that this word meant "tribe of superior men," actually it meant something like "he speaks the regular way." The first spelling of the area as "Illinois" occurred as early as the 1670s.

One story regarding the derivation of the word "Illinois" is that Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette learned the word when he arrived in the region in 1674 and asked the people there who they were. Marquette reportedly claimed that "Illinois" meant "the men." Other folk etymology claims state that French explorer Robert de la Salle named the Illinois River after the tribes he found living in the region in 1679, and that the state was later named after the river.