Chicago is a city of many names – The Second City, Chi-Town, and The Heart of America, to name a few. Among the city’s most widely known nicknames, however, is the Windy City. If you’ve ever felt the frigid breeze off Lake Michigan on a winter day in Chicago, the name probably seems fitting. However, while Chicago certainly has its fair share of wind, it actually isn’t all that special when it comes to gusty weather. In fact, plenty of other major cities, like Boston and San Francisco, are known to have higher average wind speeds.
So where does Chicago’s famous nickname actually come from? Though there is no definitive origin, there are a couple prevailing theories.
The 1893 World’s Fair
One of the most popular theories behind the Windy City nickname is that it was coined by Charles A. Dana, who was editor of a now-defunct newspaper called The New York Sun. In the early 1890s, New York and Chicago were completing to host the 1893 World’s Fair. Dana allegedly wrote an editorial that made reference to Chicago as a windy city because of its full-of-hot-air politicians.
In 2004, the Chicago Tribune published a column which credits Dana as the originator of the Windy City moniker. The article cites an excerpt from the Chicago Public Library web site, which alleges that Dana cautioned his readers to ignore the “nonsensical claims of that windy city.”
While long-winded politicians seem like a reasonable inspiration for the Windy City label, there are some issues with crediting Dana as the sole source of the nickname. For one, no one has ever been able to find this editorial he supposedly wrote. People aren’t even sure on a date of publication.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the term predated Dana’s purported use.
Literally a Windy City
Barry Popik is an etymologist who has spent years researching the Windy City origin. He found evidence that the name was already widely used in print by the 1870s, 20 years before Dana supposedly coined the nickname. Popik’s research also suggests that the term was originally meant both in a literal sense, and as a metaphor for the city’s boastful citizens.
Chicago, being the primary metropolis of the Midwest, garnered many rivalries with other cities, like St. Louis and Cincinnati, during the 19th century. It was common for newspapers in these cities to toss insults at one another. References to the ‘Windy City’ can actually be found in numerous Midwestern news publications from that era.
One of the best known is a May 9, 1876, headline from The Cincinnati Enquirer, which uses the phrase “That Wind City” in reference to a tornado that swept through Chicago.
“The Cincinnati Enquirer’s use is clearly double-edged,” Popik told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “They used the term for windy speakers who were full of wind, and there was a wind-storm in Chicago. It’s both at once.”
Chicago had previously promoted itself as a summertime vacation spot by referencing its nice Lake Michigan breezes. Popik has concluded that the Windy City name may have actually started as a reference to weather. As Chicago became more prominent in the late-19th century, he and others believe the term began to take on a double meaning.
The Windy City Today
At the end of the day, it may be impossible to determine who exactly coined the term. Many still credit Charles Dana with popularizing the nickname, even if he didn’t specifically coin it. While the Windy City nickname may have started as a literal descriptor of Chicago’s weather, it is clear that over time the label has come to reference hot-aired politicians. Now, over 100 years later, the Windy City nickname endures.
Think you know a lot about Chicago? Try playing this Chicago Quiz to see how much you really know.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.