Origins of NYC Place Names

If you find yourself reading this post, you probably used NYCityMap first. And if you did, you probably navigated to a location on the map by providing a textual description of the location. The ability to describe a location for the purpose of navigation or direction is not unique to NYCityMap nor is the means to do so. Even technically savvy users with GPS- equipped smartphones, need a way to establish a destination location. The most common of these are address, intersection and place name.

In New York City, many place and street names have historical origins. Names were provided by the early inhabitants and explorers of the region and over time, the influx of people and languages have added their mark to the rich history of the City. From the Lenape Indians, to French and Italian explorers, to early Dutch then English colonists and finally a multi-cultural society, each group has added a variety of names to the lexicon of New York City place and street names.

Some place names have their origins in phonetic interpretations of the language spoken at the time. In some cases these words were a description of a geographic feature or land form. Appearing in a log book or on a map, could promote the word from the spoken to official. In recording the name, phonetic license was very probably applied resulting in consonants and vowels modified, omitted or added thus transforming the word into what we use today.

‘New World’ satellites of cities and towns from the homeland were also frequently used. Perhaps the motivation here was to bring a sense of place from the old to the new. With the exception of those of English origin, proper names were anglicized to suit the British administrators.

Early explorers, war heroes and settlers also provided their names for features and places throughout the City. Following a course that was sure to have been taken by early explores through Lower New York Bay, brings us to the Narrows and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that spans it, which was named for Giovanni da Verrazano an Italian sailing under a French flag. Through which leads to the Upper New York Bay and the Henry Hudson River named for the Englishman sailing for the Dutch. Moving inland to the island of Manhattan (Lenape) brings us past the Bowery (Dutch), Stuyvesant Town (Dutch) and further North to Harlem (Dutch).

Waves of immigrants are still coming to the City. The make up of whole neighborhoods and communities have changed and are constantly changing. It will be interesting to see the names that will come out of these areas in the future. The names included in this post are a small sample. And believe it or not there is even a science to the study of place names. If this post sparked your interest see the Wikipedia entry for Toponomy.


Canarsie – a Lenape subgroup

Manhattan – from Manna hatta meaning ‘island of many hills’


Arthur Kill – from Achter Kill meaning ‘back channel’

Bowery – farm

Brooklyn – from Breukelen, a Dutch city

Coney Island – Conyne Eylandt meaning ‘Rabbit Island’

Flushing – from Vlissingen, a Dutch city

Greenwich Village – from Greenwijck

Harlem – from Haarlem, a Dutch city

Kill – body of water

Kill van Kull – channel from the pass or ridge

Riker’s Island – family name

Spuyten Dyvil – meaning ‘Spinning Devil’ or ‘Devil’s Whirlpool’

Stuyvesant – last director of the Dutch colony


Verrazano Narrows Bridge – Giovanni da Verrazano, explorer

Columbus Circle – Christopher Columbus, explorer


Gouverneur Lane – Abraham Gouverneur, political activist


Henry Hudson River – explorer

New York – Duke of York


Kosciuszko Bridge – volunteer during the American Revolution

3 thoughts on “Origins of NYC Place Names

  1. There are two major theories concerning the origin of the Dutch name Spuyten Duyvil. According to the first, a trumpeter dispatched to the Bronx during the 1664 British invasion of New Amsterdam rowed across the turbulent creek “en spijt den Duyvil” (in spite of the Devil). The second is based on a 1647 reference to a gushing fountain that emptied into the creek, “Spuit den Duyvil” (Devil?s Spout) or to the creek itself (Devil’s Spate). At least fourteen different spellings of the name have been recorded, including those mentioned above and Speak Devil, Speight den Duyvil, Speit den Duyvil, Spike & Devil, Spiling Devil, Spilling Devil, Spitendeuval, Spitten Divil, Spittin Debell, Spitting Devil, and Spitton Divil. The second is based on a 1647 reference to a gushing fountain that emptied into the creek,
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