The origins of Alabama as a word have been the subject of much discussion among philologists, who study the roots and meanings of words. As a state name, it refers to the Native American tribe of that name, that historically inhabited the central part of the state. It is thought that the word derives from a phonetic spelling of an Indian word or phrase recorded by early European explorers, who did not note any meaning for the name. Difficulties arose in determining what the word meant, because it may have come from another Indian dialect that was not part of the tribe’s language. Ascribed various meanings over many years, it is likely that the word is a combination of Choctaw Indian words meaning “thicket clearers.”
The first written reference to the tribe is from the logs of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540. The tribal name was later recorded as “Alibamo” by explorer Garcillaso de la Vega. Various other chroniclers noted the tribe as “Alibamu” or “Limamu.” Later, the tribe was mistakenly listed as a Chickasaw tribe. This created a problem in determining the meaning of many of the words in their own language.
In the US, the first English meaning given to Alabama appeared in a newspaper article of unknown authorship in the Jackson Republican in 1872. The writer ascribed the meaning “here we rest” to it. Alexander Beaufort Meek, an important literary figure of the period who wrote on history and Native Americans, kept this interpretation alive through remainder of the century.
Later, researchers determined that the tribe spoke what was part of the Muskogee Indian dialect. They could not find any translation of “Alabama” that would correspond to the phrase “here we rest.” Inquiries of older tribal members also yielded no results for what the word meant.
As Native American scholars began to learn more about Indian culture, they discovered that it was common for a tribe to adopt the name that another tribe bestowed on them. This naming could be through friendship, respect, or simply an observation by another tribe about the ways of its neighbor.
The Choctaw were close neighbors of the Alabama. One possible translation of the tribal name in Choctaw is “thicket clearers.” This translation derives from the Choctaw words “alba,” meaning thick vegetation” and “amo,” meaning to “clear, collect, or gather up.” There has also been some speculation that the name derives from the mispronunciation of the Choctaw word “ablina,” which means “campsite.”