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All About Chicago’s Nicknames

January 12, 2023

Nicknames for large American cities are a mixed lot. Some are treasured and well known (The Big Apple for New York), some are functional (The Motor City for Detroit), some are descriptive (The Big Easy for New Orleans) and some are reviled by their own residents (Frisco for San Francisco).

Chicago has had a number of nicknames since its early days as a trading post along the shores of the big lake. Like the nicknames for other cities listed above, some of Chicago’s nicknames are well-known, some are descriptive, some are clever, and some are not well-liked or even used by locals.


Let’s take a closer look at the origins of some of Chicago’s better-known nicknames:

The Windy City

In terms of actual average daily wind speed, Chicago doesn’t even rank among the top 20 windiest cities in America. So why does it own the nickname “The Windy City?” The answer has to do with politics and not meteorology. Because Chicago rebuilt itself so quickly after the Great Fire of 1871, city fathers were eager to show off the new city to the rest of the world so they decided to enter the competition to serve as host for the 1893 World’s Fair. New York, which also wanted to host the Fair, said Chicago’s boasts about their new city were nothing more than hot air coming from a bunch of political windbags. The name stuck and the rest is history. By the way, Chicago bested New York and went on to host one of the most successful World’s Fairs on record.

Second City

Again the Chicago Fire plays a key role in the development of one of the city’s best-known nicknames. In 1871, with the city in ruins, local residents remained firm in their resolve to rebuild the city a second time — thereby creating a Second City. Eight years later the nickname was co-opted by an East Coast newspaper columnist who used the nickname to describe what he felt was Chicago’s second-class status to New York. In 1959, Chicago’s newest improvisational theatre group adopted the nickname for their comedy troupe and theatrical productions, calling themselves “Second City.”

City of Big Shoulders

In 1914, Carl Sandburg wrote a poem entitled “Chicago” in which he describes it as the “City of the Big Shoulders.” Sandburg is referring to working class people — tradesmen and physical laborers — who built Chicago into the great city that it is. He also is referring to Chicago’s importance to the nation as a provider of meat and food products, transportation, inventions, and so on. His nickname resonated with Chicagoans and non-Chicagoans alike and today is often used in speeches by politicians and civic boosters.

Chi-Town

Though it has been around for a long time (its first recorded use is in a local newspaper circa 1900), many locals dismiss the nickname as something lame that is uttered only by suburbanites and tourists. They say the nickname isn’t edgy, is similar to other cities’ nicknames that use “town” to describe themselves, and it doesn’t even align with the correct pronunciation of the city’s name (a long “i” sound instead of a short “i”).

Chi-Beria

Richard Castro, a meteorologist working for CBS television in Chicago in 2014, became famous overnight when he combined the words “Chicago” and “Siberia” to describe some of the coldest temperatures encountered by Chicagoans in decades, hence Chi-beria. Today, Castro’s term is used to describe much colder-than-normal weather conditions in and around the city.

City in a Garden

Chicago’s motto, adopted in 1837 when it was incorporated as a city, is Urbs in Horto or “City in a Garden.” The motto, which appears on the official seal of the City of Chicago, was meant to commemorate the many green spaces, parks and beaches that preceded Chicago’s founding as a city. Over the years, thanks to such visionaries as Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmstead and Jens Jensen, Chicago’s park system and public green space areas have become the envy of other municipalities around the world.

That Toddlin’ Town

First published in 1922, “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” was a song that was performed and recorded many times but didn’t hit the charts until Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1957. It has been one of the city’s unofficial nicknames ever since. What does “toddlin'” mean? There was a popular dance in the 1920s called the Toddle and Chicago was well known at that time as a “dancin’ sort of town.” The nickname was a good fit.

My Kind of Town

In 1964, Frank Sinatra and his fellow rat packers starred in a feature film entitled “Robin and the 7 Hoods.” In the film, Sinatra’s character is let out of jail and he gratefully sings his tune of thanks to a gathered group of Chicagoans, stating emphatically that the city is his “kind of town.” Over the years, the nickname has scored big with Chicago’s tourism agencies who have relied on the phrase several times to promote the city in marketing campaigns.

The Third Coast

The Third Coast is a term that refers to coastal areas in the United States that are distinctly not the East Coast or the West Coast. While the Gulf Coast of the United States most often receives the moniker “Third Coast,” the Great Lakes region — and more specifically Chicago — sometimes get the honor. In 2013, author Thomas Dyja wrote a book, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, which also helped popularize the nickname.

The White City

For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, pavilions and exhibition halls were purposely constructed as temporary facilities and then painted white with pressurized sprayers. The net result was a collection of glistening white buildings fronted by reflection pools and lagoons — a veritable “White City,” which is how the nickname originated. It is rare, however, that you hear one refer to today’s Chicago as the White City because it was so long ago that the White City existed. One nickname that did stick from the Fair, however, was “Monsters of the Midway.” The Midway refers to the Midway Plaisance, a separate area for fair amusements, rides and sideshows that captured the hearts and minds of fairgoers. Because the event was held on land that would later become the University of Chicago campus, the University’s powerful football team, the Chicago Maroons, became known as the Monsters of the Midway.

The City that Works

Mayor Richard J. Daley bestowed this nickname on the city in a speech when he described Chicago as a blue collar, hard-working city which ran relatively smoothly. Recently, many have added a question to the phrase: “…Works for Whom?”

The Great American City 

In his book about the presidential nominating conventions of 1968, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Normal Mailer wrote, “Chicago is the great American city … perhaps [the last] of the great American cities.” In 2012, Robert Sampson wrote Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood. Both authors felt that Chicago was a classic city in the American sense — much more so than others, like New York, which they argued had outgrown its greatness.

Hog Butcher to the World 

Widely used for more than 100 years, the nickname has fallen out of favor since the Union Stock Yards closed in 1971. When it is invoked, it is generally by people who use it in a nostalgic sense — an era when meat packing was the city’s largest industry and had achieved world-wide recognition for its size, efficiency and contributions to Chicago’s growth and prosperity. The nickname first appears in Carl Sandburg’s 1914 poem, “Chicago.”

Beirut by the Lake

When Harold Washington was elected mayor in 1983, his block of aldermanic supporters in the City Council numbered 21, but his opposition, led by the “Two Eddies” (Aldermen Edward Vrdolyak and Edmund Burke) thwarted Washington’s agenda at virtually every turn. Dubbed “Council Wars” by the local media, the legislative gridlock became known as “Beirut by the Lake,” a reference to the Lebanese Civil War of the 1980s.

Chicagoland

Though the actual first use of this nickname is a bit murky, Col. Robert McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, generally is given credit for first use of the coined phrase on page one of his newspaper on July 26, 1926. The term Chicagoland refers to the entire Chicago metropolitan area, including 14 counties in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

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