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Windy City

Q From John Branch: I’ve heard three explanations for the term Windy City as an epithet for Chicago, Illinois: the common assumption that it refers to the winds gusting through the city (understandable to anyone who’s been there); the boasting of Chicagoans to the rest of America about the glories of their rebuilt city after the Great Fire; and the blustering of Chicago politicians to the city’s inhabitants. My guess is that the first could easily be invention after the fact, while the last is too local to account for the term’s familiarity elsewhere. What do your sources tell you?

A It is indeed often said that the word windy in the name refers to the long-winded and boastful speech of Chicago politicians.

The story you will commonly find is that it dates to shortly before the great World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893. Chicago was putting forward its claim with great verve and bombast. This really got up the nose of people in New York, which was competing with Chicago to host the exhibition. Animosity became so bad that Charles A Dana, editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial telling New Yorkers to pay no attention to the “nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not hold a world’s fair even if they won it”. The history books tell us that Chicago did win it and did hold it (and even made a profit from it). Books also tell us that the nickname of Windy City dates from that editorial.

This story is wrong. There are several recorded instances of Chicago being called the Windy City before Mr Dana put his pen to paper. That we now have what looks like the real story is owed, as so often with American expressions, to Barry Popik, part-time parking judge and expert amateur word sleuth.

For example, he found this in the Chicago Tribune for 11 September 1886: “The name of ‘Windy City,’ which is sometimes used by village papers in New York and Michigan to designate Chicago, is intended as a tribute to the refreshing lake breezes of the great summer resort of the West, but is an awkward and rather ill-chosen expression and is doubtless misunderstood”.

It has only recently been discovered that the term appears even earlier, in a headline on the front page of the Cleveland Gazette for 19 September 1885, reporting several items of news from Chicago, particularly a judicial decision: “From the Windy City: Judge Foote’s Civil Right decision”. For the nickname to be well enough known in Cleveland that it appeared in a headline without explanation indicates that it was by 1885 getting to be an established term.

Mr Popik has suggested that the name actually originated in a scheme by the Chicago Tribune about that date to promote the city as a summer resort, using the cool breeze off the lake as the basis of its attraction. Before then, Chicago was usually nicknamed Garden City (its Latin motto was and is Urbs in Horto, “city in a garden”). There seems to have been a shift from the old name to the new in the middle 1880s.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Dec. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 15 December 2001.