Chicago, IL

What's in a Name?

Jeffrey Johnson
Downtown ChicagoPixabay

Ever wonder why Chicago is known as The Windy City? It's a debate that reaches back into the rich history of the city and has resulted in a debate you might hear locals discussing during your time here.

The first mention of a windy city by the Chicago Tribune was actually in reference to Cincinnati Ohio as early as 1867. Back then, the two cities were in fierce competition but not over the wind, over meat. Known as "porkopolis," Cincinnati had a well known meatpacking trade. Once Chicago surpassed Cincinnati in this metric, Chicago claimed the same "porkopolis" name. In 1869, Cincinnati's pride of baseball was called the Red Stockings, so Chicago created the White Stockings to defeat them. Then, throughout the mid 1870s, the Chicago Tribune started referencing Cincinnati as "The Windy City."

Speaking from a pure weather standpoint, Chicago's average windspeed is 10 mph. Cities like Boston (12 mph), and Amarillo, Texas (13 mph) are technically winder than the winds that whip downtown Chicago. And even though winds at these speeds are no "light breeze," the effects so strong because of Chicago's placement adjacent to Lake Michigan. The strong winds off the lake are funneled down to the street level by the tall buildings downtown creating an effect Chicago once tried to spin as making the city an "ideal summer resort."

Another interesting reference to the intense winds of Chicago during winter is found in popular African American Vernacular English often called "the Hawk." In the 1900s references to "the hawk" can be found in newspapers and songs. (This reference to Chicago's ice-cold winds is NOT connected to the city's hockey team The Blackhawks. The team was named in honor of a Native American chief and the team's founder, Frederic McLaughlin, having served in the U.S. 86th Infantry Division).

For those that have heard a different story about the origins of The Windy City nickname, they are probably referencing a claim in 1893 when Chicago and New York were competing to host the World's Fair. The newspaper editor of the time, Charles Dana, is said to have referenced Chicago's residents and politicians of being "full of hot air," which gave the city its name.

Author David Wilton has debunked this story as myth and researchers have never been able to find Dana's newspaper article making the claim. Still, even if the mythic article was ever discovered, reference to "the windy city" had already been made by Chicago's own newspapers 20 years earlier!

In the end, Barry Popik is a longtime researcher of this debate and has come to conclude both answers are acceptable. While the literal interpretation of the nickname does reference the strong, cold winds felt off the lake, it can also be a metaphor for the proud, boastful citizens that live here (or to represent the "windbag" politicians).

Regardless of a phrase used at the turn of the 20th century to describe Chicago, there are many other nicknames the city could cling. Two of the stars on the Chicago flag represent two of these nicknames: "The Wonder City," and "The Convention City." Rebuilding the city after the Great Chicago Fire (1871) earned Chicago the name of "Second City" and for the meatpacking competition between Chicago and Cincinnati mentioned earlier, "Hog Butcher for the World." Other popular nicknames for Chicago include "The City of Big Shoulders, " "The White City," "The City That Works," and my personal favorite: "Chi-town."

The most accepted (and literal) meaning of the word Chicago comes from the indigenous Algonquin language "shikaakwa" meaning "onion." Based on findings from early explorers to the region, wild onions and leaks grew around the lakes and streams of the area. When discovered, the place had a strong odor of "onions" and thus, the name stuck.

"Shikaakwa." Chicago. Home.

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Jeffrey has been a freelance writer for nearly 10 years and enjoys reading and writing about a range of topics from technology to philosophy. Currently living in Chicago, IL, Jeffrey works as a professional web designer and marketing professional. He enjoys the midwest winters, spending time with close friends, and programming.

Chicago, IL

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