Q&AZ: What does the word 'Arizona' mean?

By Claire Caulfield
Published: Monday, September 10, 2018 - 4:42pm
Updated: Wednesday, February 14, 2024 - 12:34pm

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arizona welcome sign
Paul Atkinson/KJZZ
An Arizona welcome sign.

For years students in Arizona were taught that their state’s name was Spanish for “arid zone.”

“I remember in grade school my teachers told us this,” official state historian Marshall Trimble said.

However in Spanish, most adjectives come after the noun, not before.

“It would be zone arid if it was Spanish, you know the zona árida,” he said. “So that shoots that one down.”

So a KJZZ listener asked via Q&AZ what the actual word "Arizona" means. Trimble says no one really knows, but there are two prevailing theories:

In 1736, huge amounts of silver were found near Ali-Shonak, a Tohono O'odham village near the present Arizona-Sonora border.

“Ali-Shonack which was corrupted, Spanish called it Arreh-soonah and then when the gringos came in that didn’t roll off the tongue quite as well so it became Arah-zonah,” he said.

However, Trimble thinks it’s more likely that Arizona comes from “haritz ona,” which roughly translates to “the good oak tree” in Basque.

There are other places named Arizona throughout South and Central America that, like the Grand Canyon State, were also settled by Spanish and Basque immigrants in the 1700s.