What’s in a Name: A Brief History of the Borough Names

Traversing through New York City, named after King Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York, many new arrivals and some long time residents have wondered why the boroughs have their names.  This short guide should explain why the boroughs are called what they are:


The origins of the name are not agreed upon.  The name Manhattan could be a Dutch corruption of a Lenape or Munsee word for “Place of Many Hills”, “Place Where One Gathers Bows,” or the oft-quoted “Place of General Inebriation.”


Brooklyn is named after Breukelen, a Dutch village.  Various sources say this further translates into “the Broken Land.”


This borough was named for Queen Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II, who was the sovereign when the English took what became New York from the Dutch.


This area was named after Jonas Bronck, a Scandinavian settler (who was believed to be Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian, depending on who you ask) who was a major landholder in the area in the 1600s.

Staten Island

Staten Island was named by Henry Hudson for the Staten Generaal, then the name of the Parliament for the Netherlands.  In 1683, the island was reorganized into Richmond County, named after the Duke of Richmond, illegitimate son of King Charles II.

The naming of the city itself and the outer boroughs follows a consistent pattern with the Age of Discovery in naming areas after important people or landowners (this pattern is repeated all across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), or as a linguistic corruption of already existing local names (which was common at one point in India and is still common in many New York neighborhoods).  Another entry regarding some of the neighborhood names will come at another time.  You are able to learn this and other history like it on a Sights by Sam tour.

Under the Streets

Under the very streets of New York is one of the most important sights to behold, yet important for ferrying over three million people through the metropolis daily.  The New York City Subway, with 469 stations and enough track to go from Manhattan to Chicago, is essential to the functioning of the city as we know it.

Before 1904, when the current system opened, a crowded, seemingly never ending mass of horse carriages plied across the city.  The horses powering these carriages produced thousands of gallons of waste daily. This was in addition to the dead horses, which had to be removed.  For many, transportation was done via streetcars and cablecars, but these were dangerous for pedestrians in some areas (the Brooklyn Dodgers earned their nickname from fans dodging trolleys careening around their ballpark).  There were several elevated lines, but these were initially powered by steam (sending their pollution onto the streets below) or blocked out light to the bottom of the street (such as on the Bowery).  A new solution had to be found.

Inspired by developments in London in the mid 1800s, underground rail was sought.  Inventor Alfred Ely Beech developed a short subway line that was powered by large fans blowing the car from one terminal to the other in the late 1800s.  This line was short-lived due to political issues.

In 1900, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) began building its lines on the east and west sides of Manhattan and opened in 1904.  The IRT was soon joined by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) and later the Independent Subway System (IND, run by the city, as it was built independently of private investment).  The City of New York wound up owning all three systems a little before World War II.  Being three different companies, the stops often overlap, with many stops converging in Lower Manhattan as the idea was to move as many people as possible to the business district for work in the morning and back home at night.  The old systems are all incorporated into the current system: the IRT (numbered lines), the BMT (J through Z lines), and the IND (A through G lines).  Many lines can run in a local-express configuration, and the system is the largest of its type in the world that runs all day, every day.

The subway, in addition to being mostly utilitarian in its purpose, does have art in it such as Guastavino tiling, while other stations have intricate mosaics (Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall has pictures of the great bridge and Astor Place has beavers, which allude to the source of the Astor Family’s wealth in furs).  Several stations also have pieces from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts and Design Program, which features local and well-known artists.

The next time you are traveling from point A to point B in our great city, take a moment to look for hidden design accents and marvel that this is the busiest, hardest working system of its type in the country and an instant symbol of the great city.  This is one of the many things you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.