The Many Names of NYC: A Tapestry of History and Culture

Last updated: August 30, 2023

New York City

Names and nicknames of cities are not merely labels; they help to tell the story and describe the character of a place.  We will explore the historical progression of NYC's names, from indigenous roots to modern nicknames, and analyze how each name has shaped the city's global image, emotional resonance, and cultural narrative. Whether you're a history buff, a traveler, or someone intrigued by the intricate relationship between names and identities, this piece offers a comprehensive look at the multifaceted identity of one of the world's most iconic cities, all through the lens of its names.

Historical Names of NYC

Before European Arrival: Lenapehoking


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Before the arrival of European explorers, the region now known as New York City was known as "Lenapehoking" to its original inhabitants, the Lenape people. The Lenape, also called the Delaware Indians, had a deep-rooted history, culture, and bond with these lands, having lived here for thousands of years.

Organized into matrilineal bands and clans, the Lenape communities had distinct territories throughout the region for hunting, fishing, and agriculture. Spirituality was central to their lives, with a belief in a Great Spirit and ceremonies honoring the natural world, their ancestors, and life cycles.

Their settlements, with wigwams and longhouses built using materials like wood, bark, and reeds, were strategically positioned for access to water and farming land. The European invasion drastically impacted the Lenape, from initial trade interactions to territorial conflicts, disease introduction, and eventual displacement from their ancestral grounds.

Though colonial narratives often eclipse indigenous histories, the Lenape's stewardship of the land predating New York City remains significant. Their enduring legacy is evident in place names like "Manhattan," rooted in the Lenape word "Manna-hata."

European Exploration: New Angoulême

In the early phase of European exploration of the New World, various nations raced to claim and document newly discovered territories, often naming them in homage to their monarchs or to draw parallels with known regions. Among the first Europeans to sail into what is now known as New York Harbor was the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. Commissioned by King Francis I of France, Verrazzano's journey aimed to find a westward route to Asia, but it led to the detailed charting of the American eastern seaboard instead.

In tribute to his patron, King Francis I, Verrazzano named the harbor "New Angoulême," drawing inspiration from the French town of Angoulême, the title associated with the French crown before Francis ascended the throne. Despite the significance of Verrazzano's exploration, the name "New Angoulême" did not persist for long. 

Dutch Colonization: New Amsterdam, Noten Eylant

New Amsterdam

The saga of NYC's Dutch beginnings is essential for a holistic understanding of the city's history. The Dutch connection began with English explorer Henry Hudson's 1609 voyage under the Dutch East India Company flag. His exploration of the Hudson River region piqued Dutch interests.

By 1624, the Dutch West India Company formed the New Netherland colony, covering parts of today's New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut. The primary settlement, "New Amsterdam," at Manhattan Island's southern tip, evolved as the colony's central hub.

Notably, the Dutch renamed the present-day Governor's Island "Noten Eylant." Their interactions with the Native Americans comprised both trade alliances and disputes. By 1664, internal and external pressures led to the English seizing New Amsterdam without resistance, transitioning its name to "New York" after the Duke of York.

English Era: New York, New Orange

New York City

The English acquisition of New Netherland in 1664 instigated substantial changes, renaming the thriving New Amsterdam to "New York" in tribute to James, the Duke of York. This shift was not just nominal; it signaled profound changes in governance, culture, and economy.

The British enhanced New York's trading stature, solidifying its reputation as a principal New World gateway. However, the city's Dutch essence persisted. Place names like "Broadway" (originating from the Dutch "Breede weg") and "Harlem" (after the Dutch city of Haarlem) are testament to this Dutch legacy.

Interestingly, during the brief Dutch recapture in 1673, the English "New York" was renamed "New Orange" in honor of William III of Orange. However, this name was short-lived, reverting to New York in 1674 after the English regained control.

Cultural Names and Nicknames

The Big Apple

Originating in the early 20th century, the moniker "The Big Apple" is synonymous with New York City, though its origins remain debated. One prevalent theory ties the name to the city's horse racing legacy. In the 1920s, 'apple' was commonly used in the United States to refer to a city or town, especially one considered important or prominent. To win in New York was to capture the "Big Apple" – the greatest prize. The term gained wider recognition when John J. Fitz Gerald, a New York Morning Telegraph sports writer, started using it in his horse racing columns. By the 1930s and '40s, jazz musicians also adopted the term to denote playing in New York City, the premier stage in the nation.

The City That Never Sleeps

This evocative name perfectly captures the essence of NYC's relentless vitality and constant motion. A place where nightclubs thrive in the twilight hours, where late-night eateries serve hungry patrons, and where the subway runs all night, New York offers endless opportunities around the clock. The phrase became popularized in songs and literature, emphasizing the city's ceaseless rhythm and its inhabitants' indefatigable spirit.


The name "Gotham" traces back to medieval England, referencing a village that was, according to folklore, inhabited by fools. The famous American author, Washington Irving, was the first to jokingly label New York City as Gotham in the 19th century. The association might have faded into history if not for Bill Finger and Bob Kane, creators of Batman. They adopted "Gotham City" as the dark, complex home of the Caped Crusader, forever linking the name with New York's mysterious allure.

Empire City

Emerging as the United States' most influential metropolis in the 19th and 20th centuries, New York City was frequently dubbed the "Empire City." A reflection of its grandeur, this nickname acknowledges the city as an epicenter of culture, finance, and innovation, rivaling ancient empires in its significance.

The Melting Pot

Coined in the early 20th century, "The Melting Pot" metaphorically depicts the harmonious blend of diverse ethnicities, cultures, and traditions that define NYC. Its neighborhoods, from the Dominican vibes of Washington Heights to the Russian enclaves in Brighton Beach, showcase this cultural fusion. Over the years, the city has provided refuge and opportunities for countless immigrants, making it a global hub of multiculturalism.

Modern Nicknames & Cultural References

As with all evolving metropolises, New York City's identity is constantly being reshaped by contemporary influences, yielding a plethora of new nicknames and cultural associations. Here are some of the modern tags and references associated with the city:

  1. Nueva York: Reflecting the city's strong Latino presence, this Spanish translation of "New York" underscores the significant impact of Hispanic culture, from the vibrant festivals of El Barrio to the salsa rhythms of the Bronx.

  2. The Capital of the World: Given its significance in global finance, media, fashion, and culture, NYC is often called the world's capital. Its influence radiates far beyond its borders, making it a focal point for international events and trends.

  3. The Center of the Universe: This moniker, sometimes used humorously, stems from the idea that all things, big or small, eventually find their way to New York. It's a nod to the city's magnetic pull and its role as a global crossroads.

  4. Concrete Jungle: Popularized by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z's hit song "Empire State of Mind," this term encapsulates NYC's dense skyline, bustling streets, and the challenges and opportunities within its urban sprawl.

  5. The Five Boroughs: While not a nickname, the frequent reference to NYC's five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island) emphasizes the city's vastness and diversity. Each borough boasts its unique culture, vibe, and identity, contributing to the grand tapestry of the city.

  6. The 6th Borough: As places like Jersey City and Hoboken in New Jersey became more interconnected with NYC due to their proximity and commuter trends, they've been humorously referred to as "The 6th Borough."

  7. Media and Pop Culture Influence: Shows like "Sex and the City," "Friends," and "Gossip Girl" have carved out specific images of New York, introducing new facets of the city's personality to global audiences. Similarly, songs, films, and novels set in NYC continually contribute to its cultural lore, creating and reinforcing associations that become part of the city's modern identity.

As New York City continues to evolve, so do its nicknames and cultural references, reflecting its dynamic nature and the myriad influences that shape its character.

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