Every four years, political operatives and reporters head to Nevada, currently home to six up-for-grabs electoral votes in the American presidential election. And every four years, a charged question reemerges in the American consciousness: How exactly is the name of this state pronounced? Nevadans say “neh-VAD-uh.” Non-Nevadans typically say “neh-VAH-duh.” So I texted Dee Foster, a friend of mine who grew up in Reno, to ask if she would be interested in talking about her home state. It could have been about anything! But she responded with a demand. Before she would talk to me about anything Nevada-related, I had to send her a voice message of me, pronouncing the name of the state.

To get it out of the way, there isn’t really a “correct” or “incorrect” way to pronounce Nevada in any objective sense; both “neh-VAD-uh” and “neh-VAH-duh” are perfectly understandable to all English speakers, which is really the only thing that matters. But there is an argument to be made that place names should be pronounced the way the people that live there pronounce them—except, of course, we don’t do that at all.

It is not unusual for the residents of a state to have their own pronunciation of their state’s name; regional accents and dialects can affect all kinds of words. What is unusual is Nevadans’ insistence. It’s not that their accent informs the way they pronounce their home state’s name, as in, say, New York (New Yawk, stereotypically) or Minnesota (where, not to get into it too much, but the “oh” sound is pronounced in a different part of the mouth and is often simplified compared with the way non-Minnesotans say it). It’s that they insist that the way many other people say it— “neh-VAH-duh”—is objectively wrong. Some politicians, like Barack Obama, make it a point to pronounce Nevada as Nevadans do. Some have accidentally said “neh-VAH-duh,” only to frantically apologize and switch to the local pronunciation. Others, like Donald Trump, and possibly only Donald Trump, have insisted that the local pronunciation is incorrect. Discussing the pronunciation of Nevada is a sort of campaign tradition, largely because Nevadans have made it so.

Linguistically, those two variations on the central syllable are related. “These are both low vowels, which means they’re produced with the tongue and usually the jaw lowered,” says Jennifer Nycz, a linguist at Georgetown University who studies dialect changes in people who move around. The difference lies in the horizontal position of the tongue: in “neh-VAD-duh,” the tongue is farther forward in the mouth, while in “neh-VAH-duh,” it’s back.

Proponents of “neh-VAH-duh” will often say, look, nevada is a Spanish word (meaning “snowy” or “snow-capped,” and the state’s name is probably derived from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, part of which lies within its borders. As the name of the region, it first came to be used in 1861. Prior to that, it was part of the Utah Territory and referred to as Washoe, after one of the Indigenous communities that lived in the area. (And prior to that, it was part of Alta California, first a territory of imperial Spain and then Mexico, before being ceded to the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War.)

In the 1860s, many Western Shoshone families living in Nevada's Ruby Valley saw their land given to white settlers.
In the 1860s, many Western Shoshone families living in Nevada’s Ruby Valley saw their land given to white settlers. George Eastman House Collection

The land that now makes up the state of Nevada was never heavily populated; the Indigenous peoples there, including the Shoshone, Washoe, and Paiute, typically consisted of small communities centered around one of the lakes, streams, or wetlands in the otherwise exceptionally dry region. It was really only separated from the rest of the Utah Territory due to the 1859 discovery of silver in what would come to be called the Comstock Lode, and also the desire to quarantine a growing Mormon population somewhere else. Silver was incredibly valuable at the time, and also a matter of national policy. Nineteenth-century Americans were incredibly passionate about what their money was physically made of.

Nevada was admitted as a state eight days before the 1864 presidential election, partly because of the silver but mostly because the Republicans were trying to ensure Abraham Lincoln’s reelection with a couple extra electoral votes. It was a good scam; Nevada didn’t even have the 60,000 “free persons” population that had previously been considered precedent to declare a new state. (Lincoln did not, as it turned out, need the extra votes; he crushed in the election.) But those Nevadans, who numbered just over 40,000 in 1870, the first time Nevada appeared as a state in the census, were pretty recent arrivals themselves.

Nevada has always been a state in thrall to boom-and-bust cycles. Gold, silver, divorce, gambling, military: The state’s population has risen and fallen with dizzying speed. That’s partly why trying to tie the pronunciation of the name to any particular demographic group just leads to chaos. At various points, Nevada has had mass influxes of populations of Irish, Italians, Chinese, Mexican, French, and Portuguese, in addition to internal migration from all over the country, especially but not exclusively California. Nearly 29 percent of Nevadans are “Hispanic or Latino,” according to the 2020 census, one of the highest percentages in the country. Yet the Spanish-derived state name is supposed to be pronounced in a way that seems self-evidently wrong?

The Comstock Mine in Virginia City, Nevada was one of the state's more well known sites in the 1860s.
The Comstock Mine in Virginia City, Nevada was one of the state’s more well known sites in the 1860s. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain

There is not a documented first occasion that the state’s name was pronounced “neh-VAD-uh.” This is annoying but not surprising. The earliest one I can find dates to 1921, an offhand reference in the Reno Evening Gazette to “the correct pronunciation of ‘Nevada.’” “Growing up there, you’re just surrounded by a bunch of people saying ‘neh-VAD-uh.’ The first time I ever heard anyone say it a different way was in a school assembly,” says Foster. (Everyone booed.)

When the Nevada Territory took its name, the vast majority of the people using the terminology were native English speakers. There is a sort of translation at work: They were taking an existing word from another language and mapping it onto their own. But speakers of each language have different sets of tools—sounds—to pronounce words. English doesn’t have, say, a trilled R, so the pronunciation of the Spanish word “Florida” has to be altered. (The variation from the original word, or phrase, gets much more extreme when the state name comes from an Indigenous American language, as in Massachusetts, Minnesota, or Nebraska.)

The problem is that Spanish, being a much more sensible language than English, has five vowels, and five vowels only. (Well, if we’re not counting dipthongs. Or tripthongs. All languages are complicated but stay with me here.) If you see an “a” in Spanish, and it’s not next to another vowel, it’s asking you to say one sound. I could write it as “ah,” but that wouldn’t be exactly correct. Spanish has “only a single low vowel, an ‘ah,’ which is actually intermediate between the two English low vowels,” says Nycz. Basically: the Spanish “ah” lies somewhere in between the vowel sound in the English words “cat” and “cot.” So the “neh-VAD-uh” pronunciation isn’t that crazy. It’s just a half-step away.

But the fact remains that the majority of the American English–speaking population says “neh-VAH-duh,” and Nevadans insist this is wrong. There are a couple of possible explanations for this phenomenon. One is that Nevada, being a fairly new and historically largely unpopulated state, traditionally did not have much to differentiate it. If you’re proud to be a Nevadan, what could you do to present that to the rest of the world? Until the creation of the Vegas Golden Knights NHL hockey team in 2017, the state had no major professional sports team, which is often a way to signify geographical pride. (They now have the Las Vegas Raiders in football, and seem likely to soon add baseball and basketball teams.) There isn’t a generally known distinctive Nevadan accent, either. There isn’t really a state dish. Even beautiful Lake Tahoe is usually associated with California, though it spans both states.

Today Nevada has many residents who did not grow up in the state, especially in the growing Las Vegas metropolis.
Today Nevada has many residents who did not grow up in the state, especially in the growing Las Vegas metropolis. Carol Highsmith / Library of Congress

Pronouncing the name of the state in a different way than the rest of the country is one method to differentiate and show pride. I think that’s why, when visiting politicians say “neh-VAH-duh” and get booed, the tone often seems more gleeful than angry. It’s a fun thing, not a cause for true offense, to be able to show your insider, local status.

Nevada is also unusual in that it is dead last in the country for the percentage of current residents of a state who were born in that state, at around 25 percent. That huge influx of new people is kind of a constant; Nevada’s population always rises and falls. But for Foster, a third-generation Nevadan who grew up surrounded by other third- and even fourth-generation Nevadans, this could be a way that Nevadans can hold onto their identity—especially at times like now, when a wave of Californians is moving in. “I feel like there’s just going to be more and more people moving there, between the mining industry, tourism, it just feels like it’s going to be growing more and more in the next few decades,” says Foster. “As the locals start to dwindle and the transplants start to overtake them, does the pronunciation change?”

Pronunciation of certain words, such as foreign words or place names, can be very tricky. “People hesitate to pronounce things closer to the way a native speaker would, for fear of sounding like a poseur, a liar, or for fear of getting it wrong,” says Nycz. It is generally the safest move to try to pronounce a word the way the person you’re speaking to would, but this involves some guesswork. If you really do your best to pronounce, say, “tortilla” or “croissant” or “xiaolongbao” in the way a native speaker of Spanish or French or Mandarin would, but you are not a native speaker of those languages, you are making a choice.

Trying your best to pronounce things the “correct” way shouldn’t really be the subject of judgment, but it really, really can be. To pronounce a distinctive or foreign word in a different way than the person you’re speaking to would could be interpreted as inauthentic, or condescending, or clueless. But it’s saying something about you. “When people speak, they’re not just conveying content,” says Nycz. “They’re conveying something about their social identity.”

“Nevada” is very much not alone in its Anglicization. “Los Angeles” is an especially egregious example, but there are mangled Spanish place names all across the American West. A not-so-generous take on this would be that most of these places used to be Mexico, and most of them have substantial populations of immigrant Spanish-speakers, and that to insist on an Americanized version of that place name is to mark it as “not Mexico.” This is rarely a conscious choice, though; most people just pronounce things the way the people around them pronounce them.

It’s possible that the pronunciation of Nevada will change, given the extreme fluidity of its population over the years. Maybe there will be so many new Nevadans who grew up saying “neh-VAH-duh” that politicians won’t have to pander to the smaller population of generational residents. But I don’t really think so. On moving to a new place, you adopt the pronunciation of the people who live there; it’s a way to join a community. Just ask a New York transplant about Houston Street, or a new resident of Los Angeles about Los Feliz. (“HOUSE-tun” and “lohs FEE-luhz,” for the record.) What makes Nevada special is that they’ve gone big: not a street or a neighborhood or a town or even a city, but an entire state—an entire way of being.

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Los Angeles who covers language, food, history, science, and whatever else he can think of. You can find more of his work on his website.