Chicago Nicknames

Chicago has a number of well known nicknames such as The Windy City and Second City.   But where exactly did these nicknames come from and what do they mean? We’ll take a look at their origins and dive into a little Chicago history along the way.

Where did ‘Chicago’ come from?

Great question. Chicago is actually a version of a word spoken by the Miami and Illinois tribes to describe a wild leek (a vegetable that belongs in the onion and garlic families) that grew in and around the mouth of what is now the Chicago River. The local tribes called this plant “shikaakwa” – which translates to “stinky onion.” The early explorers that trekked through Chicago in the early 1600s weren’t fluent in the native language and over the course of the next hundred or so odd year “shikaakwa” became “Chicago.” So, technically, our beautiful city is named after a stinky onion-type vegetable that grew here 350 years ago.

The Windy City

The most famous of our nicknames is The Windy City. A lot of visitors assume that the nickname comes from the intense winds that can blow off the shores of Lake Michigan and catch you off guard as the wind sweeps around the buildings in the Loop. Many have lost their hats, glasses and umbrellas over the years. But this isn’t why we’re The Windy City.

There are rich debates actually as to the origins of the nickname. The top two competing theories deal with a city rivalry with Cincinnati that dates back to the 1840s through 1870s as Chicago and Cincy competed for the title of largest meatpacking city in America. Cincinnati held the title, along with the nickname Porkopolis, until the mid 1860s when Chicago took over as the leading pork packer. Chicago decided to take their same nickname, Porkopolis, as well. This city rivalry spilled over to the baseball diamond when Chicago introduced a team named the White Stockings specifically to beat the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Headlines as early as April 20, 1876 proclaimed Chicago as “The Windy City.”

The other leading theory was Chicago’s politicians and lobbyists effectively blowing “hot air” while vying for the right to host the Columbian Exposition of 1893, more commonly known then as the World’s Fair. This was a bitter content with many big cities such as New York, Washington D.C. & St. Louis all wanting to host the fair. Many figured that New York City would win. Chicago had sent many people out to the east coast to speak and market Chicago as the best city. In the end Chicago did win, hosted the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and in the process might have established the folks from Chicago “Windy” with all of their talking they did.

Second City

There are again a couple of competing explanations as to why Chicago is labeled the Second City. A 1950s book written by New Yorker Magazine writer Abbott J. Liebling titled Chicago: The Second City appears to have solidified the nickname and tied it to our ranking as second best, largely due to population, to New York City. However, that wasn’t the first time the nickname had been used when comparing Chicago to New York City. Second City was a popular term to describe Chicago when we were competing head-to-head with New York City for the rights to host the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Chicago & NYC were the two finalists. We all know how this turned out.

By the way, Chicago is no longer the 2nd largest city in the USA anymore. We’re actually 3rd now behind New York City (8.1M residents) & Los Angeles (3.7M residents). Chicago has 2.7M residents.

There’s another theory of where the nickname came from that we like a little better. Chicago had an opportunity after The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to rebuild a city with a blank canvas. And we took full advantage. In the decades following the fire Chicago experienced the most explosive growth of any city in the history of the world. We pioneered sky scraping, introduced the world to modern retailing practices & created on of the greatest cities on earth. The city you’re visiting today is in fact the Second City.

City of Big Shoulders

This nickname is taken directly from the famous poem by Carl Sandberg titled Chicago published in 1914. The nickname appear in the 5th line and is likely a reference to how Chicago, in the 1850s and 1860s, literally jacked the entire city up 4-14ft creating a world beneath the main street level. After The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the city was rebuilt properly with several levels. You can see the cars driving below Wacker drive from the north side of the Chicago River at the Du Sable Bridge. Most of the maintenance, garbage and deliveries to all of the buildings take place below the main level which is why you will not notice alleys in the Loop. No need for them.

Other Chicago Nicknames

City on the Make – based on the title of an essay by Nelson Algren published in 1951 that describes a 120 year history in Chicago rife with gansters, hustlers and corrupt politicians.

City in a Garden – based on our city motto, Urbs en Horto, which is Latin for City in a Garden.

The City that Works – famous quote by then Mayor Richard J. Daley

The Third Coast – referencing the shore along Lake Michigan

City by the Lake – self explanatory – we are …a city….by …the lake (Lake Michigan)

Do you have any nicknames you like to use for Chicago? Share them with us in the comment section.




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