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"Windy City" Article Published

Back in 1999, I drafted an article on the significance and origins of Chicago's nickname, "Windy City." Finally, the Encyclopedia of Chicago hits the streets.

Encyclopedia of Chicago
source: Amazon
I won't pretend I'm either qualified or disinterested enough to write a real review of the complete volume, though I will say that it's very handsomely produced and looks to function well both as a serious research tool and as a browsable read with interesting illustrations and maps.

So in lieu of a real review (if not as a public service of dubious value), I'll at least share here the body of my small contribution to the 1,117-page tome:

"Windy City." Chicago's exposed location between the Great Plains and the Great Lakes — and the wind swirling amidst the city's early skyscrapers — lend credence to the literal application of this famous nickname dating from the late 1800s, but it is a favorite observation of tour guides and reference books that in fact Chicago's climate is not distinctively windy. (The same moniker is shared by Wellington, New Zealand, where it is more precisely meteorological.)

The power of the name lies in the metaphorical use [of] "windy" for "talkative" or "boastful." Chicago politicians early became famous for long-windedness, and the Midwstern metropolis's central location as a host city for political conventions helped cement the association of Chicago with loquacious politicians, thus underlying the nickname with double meaning.

Perhaps even more important, however, is early Chicagoans' boosterism, or self-promotion. During the mid-1800s nearly any city could (and did) proclaim itself the ascendant "Metropolis of the West." Boosters' arguments emphasized the superabundance of their locale's natural advantages and the inevitability of its preeminence, boasting that in fact they had no need to boast. Such was the "windiness" of Chicagoans, as they sought to secure investment, workers, and participation in projects of national scope such as the building of railroads and the provision of Civil War matériel. Early uses of the term appear in Cleveland (1885) and Louisville (1886) newspapers, and the 1885 appearance of the label in a headline suggests the possibility that this was not its initial invocation. It may well have been Chicago's urban rivals who coined a nickname, in derision, which has come to be adopted with pride.

It was a delight to be involved in the Encyclopedia and to work with the gifted and professional staff at the Newberry Library who shepherded the project — and it's a delight to see the finished product.


By the way, believe it or not, the history of this nickname has generated no small controversy in certain circles. (For a good introductcion to the issue and the dramatis personæ, see Cecil Adams's "Straight Dope" column on the subject.)

So it's important to note several features of the EC article:

Meaning before ancestry

It focuses on the cultural significance and historical context of the term, not the history of its origins (though without neglecting the latter). Hopefully readers will find the information about geography, politics, and culture alike interesting on their own terms.

No superlatives

It makes no assertions about the first use of the term. (Responsible etymologists never claim to pinpoint origins.) And it certainly doesn't peddle any of the old tales (notably the Charles Dana myth) about the nickname's paternity. No one owns the phrase "Windy City."

Perhaps less hot air and intercity acrimony will be let loose upon the publication of the Encyclopedia than was by the politicians and boosters who prompted the nickname in the first place.


Referenced in this item: Jonathan Boyd, "'Windy City,'" in The Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, 882 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, with the Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society, 2004).


first published Sep 24, 2004

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rev. 2004.09.11
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