Chicago has great food, great sports teams, and great people. We also have great nicknames.
Almost everyone knows Chicago is The Windy City for the wind that rolls off of Lake Michigan. Whether the term was first used by rival cities such as Cincinnati (early meatpacking and baseball rival), New York (rival city to host the World Fair), or Milwaukee (asserting itself as the morally superior and less windy Great Lakes city), or because Chicago politicians were simply long-winded (or changed their positions according to how the wind blew), The Windy City has been the nickname most identified with Chicago.
But it’s not the only nickname for Chicago. There are many others. We picked the ten best.
Second City. For many years, Chicago seemed ever ready to be the number one city in America and the world, but has instead been destined for second place (or third since Los Angeles overtook Chicago in population back in 1984). Though the exact origins of this nickname are debatable, A.J. Liebling’s etched it in stone with his classic (and controversial) portrait of our town in Chicago: The Second City. The world-class comedy troupe founded here in the 1950s goes by Second City.
City of the Big Shoulders. Poet Carl Sandburg is credited with creating this nickname. His poem“Chicago” starts:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
The Great American City. Norman Mailer wrote in his 1968 work Miami and the Siege of Chicago, “Chicago is the great American city, New York is one of the capitals of the world, and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic; San Francisco is a lady.” And so just as the Pulitzer Prize winner wrote, Chicago is The Great American City
Chi-Town or Chi-City. Both of these are variations of what we will call the same nickname used by many Chicagoans in everyday language. They are respectively the names of songs by popular rappers Da Brat and Common. Just as Pittsburgh may be referred to locally as “Da’ Burgh” and Oakland, California commonly is called “Oaktown” by residents, Chicago is Chi-Town or Chi-City. Sports teams such as the Chi-City Shamrocks have incorporated these variations into their names. Chi-Town Rising was even the name used for the city’s 2016 New Year’s Eve party.
Mud City. Two centuries ago Chicago was stuck in mud–literally. Barely above Lake Michigan, Chicago is a low-lying city that had a massive drainage problem making everything muddy. Horses and people had to trudge through the muddy streets. The city had to jack up its buildings and sidewalks to a make a taller city with a better drainage system. Chicago is still called Mud City, but because of the infrastructural improvements it would be more accurate to call Chicago “The muddy city that is somewhat less muddy” which is unlikely to stick as well as Mud City.
The Great Commercial Tree. The White Oak is the official state tree of Illinois and Chicago is The Great Commercial Tree, according to the state song of Illinois, aptly titled “Illinois,” written in the late 19th century by Civil War veteran Charles H. Chamberlain: “From a wilderness of prairies […] Till upon the inland sea, Stands thy great commercial tree, turning all the world to thee, Illinois, Illinois.” Though there is vibrant commerce throughout the state, Chicago is certainly the commercial center. After all, that’s one reason why strong financial institutions like Oak Bank make Chicago home.
Paris on the Prairie. In the early 20th century, Chicago leaders chose architect Daniel Burnham to head “The Plan of Chicago” to organize and beautify the rapidly growing city. Burnham chose an architect educated in Paris to help him with the design steeped in classicism and coined the nickname “Paris on the Prairie” for Chicago. You don’t hear the term widely used nowadays, but we like the nickname because of all the culture and arts in the city.
The City in a Garden. From Lincoln Park and Hyde Park to many other lesser known gardens and parks, Chicago boasts hundreds of parks covering over 8,000 acres. Chicago Botanic Garden itself has 27 gardens that cover just under 400 acres. With all of the beautiful foliage in such an urban area, it is appropriate that Chicago’s motto urbs in horto means “city in a garden.” The very rooftop of Chicago’s City Hall has over 20,000 plants! Chicago very much is a city in a garden.
The Toddling Town. Written in 1922 by Fred Fisher, the song “Chicago” has been recorded many times. But the 1957 rendition sung by Frank Sinatra is by far the most famous. The opening lines to the song are “Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town. Chicago, Chicago, I will show you around.” And so with Frank Sinatra’s endorsement, there it is: Chicago is The Toddling Town. Perhaps it is the windiness that gives us such an unsteady gait!
The Big Onion. This nickname draws from the original Native American name shikaakwa, which means wild onion (or as some have suggested: stinky onion) and also plays off of New York City’s nickname, The Big Apple. Some Chicago groups use this nickname in their name, such as the the Big Onion Tavern Group. In addition, the popular satirical newspaper The Onion based in Chicago may have drawn from those origins as well.
Which nickname is your favorite?