Windy City, the

Chicago is known as the Windy City, but where does this nickname come from? Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. The nickname is a reference to the winds off Lake Michigan, with perhaps a bit of a double entendre referencing Chicago’s self-promotion as a bunch of hot air.

The nickname has been around for nearly 150 years, with the earliest known appearance of the name Windy City in a headline in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel on 4 July 1860:

We are proud of Milwaukee because she is not overrun with a lazy police force as is Chicago—because her morals are better, he [sic] criminals fewer, her credit better; and her taxes lighter in proportion to her valuation than Chicago, the windy city of the West.

Citations of Windy City, meaning Chicago, from various Midwest newspapers can be found throughout the 1860s and 70s. The use of the term by the Cincinnati Enquirer was especially common (the baseball rivalry between Cincinnati and Chicago in the 1870s was quite fierce). By the 1880s, Chicagoans were embracing the term themselves.

There is a particularly common, but false, legend about the origin of the name that began to appear in the 1930s and persists to this day, often repeated by what should be quite respectful sources. The legend has it that the nickname was coined by Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun in the early 1890s. At the time, Chicago and New York were competing to host the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. Dana allegedly used the term to describe the overblown claims of Chicago.

It’s a great story. It evokes the rivalry between two great cities. It involves journalists, making it irresistible for newspapers to repeat without verification (for journalists love nothing better than to talk about themselves and their profession). But, unfortunately, it’s not true. There is no record of Dana ever using the nickname, and even if he had, we have seen that it was in common use long before the 1890s.

(Sources: ADS-L; www.barrypopik.com; Barry Popik has conducted extensive research on the origins of the Windy City and is responsible for uncovering most of the 19th century citations of the term.)

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