Place names in the United States are a hodgepodge, a seemingly random collection, of different languages.
This can make pronunciation a bit difficult, even for people who live here. From the Pacific Northwest to the eastern shores, some names are infamous in this regard. Let’s talk about 12 of them.
We begin in the Pacific Northwest. As with most parts of the United States, this area is heavily influenced by its rich Native American history and culture.
1. Spokane, Washington
The correct pronunciation is “Spo-CAN,” not “Spo-CANE.” The name Spokane comes from a Native American tribe. It means “children of the sun.”
This city is located in the northwestern part of the United States. Spokane is known for its natural beauty. The residents are very outdoorsy, meaning they like to enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and biking.
Moving down the coast, we come to California. Many names in this state come from the early Spanish settlers.
2. La Jolla, California
This sun-drenched town is commonly mispronounced “La JOL-LA.” But the correct pronunciation is “La HOY-a.”
La Jolla is a seaside community located within the city of San Diego, California. It is still unclear whether La Jolla’s name comes from the Spanish word “La Joya,” meaning “the jewel,” or from the Native American term (woholle) meaning “hole in the mountains."
But moving east across the United States, we come to not a state but a national park.
3. Yosemite National Park
This national park is grand and beautiful … and often mispronounced. It is not “Yo-SE-mi-nee” or “YO-se-MIGHT.” But rather “Yoh-sem-it-ee.” At the end, don’t forget to say the “t."
Yosemite National Park is set within California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
This park is known for its giant, ancient sequoia trees and for other breath-taking mountain scenes.
Photographer Ansel Adams is famous for his black-and-white photographs of this national treasure.
4. Helena, Montana
The capital city of Montana is pronounced “HELL-e-na,” not “Hel-LAY-na.” That is how most women named Helena say their name.
Helena is located at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. However, the city’s founders did not come for the scenery. They came to look for gold. It was first called Saint Helena. But the locals dropped the Saint and kept Helena.
Besides its Gold Rush history, Helena is also a popular destination for people who like to do things outdoors, such as hiking, biking, fishing and camping. Helena is known for its trail system -- 120 kilometers (75 miles) of hiking and biking trails.
Moving inland, we come to a state that does not sound as it is spelled.
The name Arkansas means “south wind.” It comes from (akansa), a word used by some Native Americans to describe an early tribe in the area. The pronunciation “Ark-an-saw” follows the French custom of not pronouncing the final “s.”
This state is known for its rich mineral reserves and natural beauty.
But the city of Hope, Arkansas is more famously known as the birthplace of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
6. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
This is a college town in the eastern state of Pennsylvania. The “e” at the end may confuse some people. It is not “Willks-BAR” but rather “Willks-BARRY.”
Do not drop the last “e” as common sense -- and French speakers -- would suggest.
7. Schenectady, New York
This city in New York State is pronounced “ski-NEK-tuh-dee.” The Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois Nation originally called this area "Schau-naugh-ta-da," meaning “over the pine plains.”
As Dutch settlers came to the area in the 17th century, the spelling changed. The great inventor Thomas Edison founded the General Electric Company in this city. In the 1900s, the American Locomotive Company also made most of its trains there.
Now, we move from upstate New York into New York City.
In the Big Apple, as it is called, there are two names that are often mispronounced.
8. Houston Street, New York City
Houston is a big city in the state of Texas. But if you are on a street in New York City’s funky Lower East Side, you do not pronounce it that way. Pronounce it “HOW-ston Street and you will keep your street cred.
9. Carnegie Hall
Also while visiting New York City, if you attend a music show at this famous concert hall, make sure to pronounce it properly. It is “ker-NEGG-ee” not “CAR-na-gee.” The stress is on the middle syllable.
10. Worcester, Massachusetts
Like the city of the same name in England, the correct pronunciation is WUSS-TER. It is not WOR-ches-ter or WOR-sess-ter.
Incorporated as a town in 1722, Worcester, Massachusetts, is now a vibrant, bustling city with a population of over 180,000. This makes it one of the largest cities in New England.
Now we move to the South.
11. Louisville, Kentucky
If you want to sound like a true southerner, pronounce this city in Kentucky as “LOO-i-vul” not “LOO-iss-vill” and definitely not “LOO-i-vill.” If you do, they will think you’re a Yankee from the North.
Louisville is historically a mining and agricultural city. And its position on the Ohio River also made it an important hub for transporting goods by water. These days, the city has a diverse and vibrant economy. Louisville is also famous as the home of the Kentucky Derby horse race.
12. Kissimmee, Florida
This one is easy to remember. You are not asking for someone to kiss you. So do not say “KISS-a-mee.” It’s “ka-SIM-mee.”
This city is located in the center of Florida. This is another name that comes from a Native American tribe. However, it is not known whether Kissimmee means “long waters,” as in the Kissimmee River, or it refers to the place where mulberries grow. But we do know the name has nothing to with kissing.
So, now if you read about or visit any of these places in the United States, you will know how to say their names!
I’m Anna Matteo.
I'm Jonathan Evans.
Anna Matteo wrote this article for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Spokane as the capital of Washington state.
Words in This Story
hodgepodge – n. a mixture of different things
outdoorsy – adj. enjoying outdoor activities
scenic – adj. having, providing, or relating to a pleasing or beautiful view of nature
sequoia – n. a very tall evergreen tree that grows in California
foothill – n. a hill next to a higher mountain or group of mountains
destination – n. a place to which a person is going or something is being sent
trail – n. a beaten path through rough country such as a forest or mountain range
street cred – n. the acceptance and respect of people who live in a city neighborhood
vibrant – adj. having or showing great life, activity, and energy
bustling – adj. to have a lot of busy activity
hub – n. a center of activity
diverse – adj. made up of people or things that are different from each other