The origins of Chicago’s famous nickname are not entirely clear. The most obvious explanation is that it comes from the frigid breezes that blow off Lake Michigan and sweep through the city’s streets. However, another popular theory holds that it was coined in reference to Chicago’s bloviating residents and politicians, who were deemed to be “full of hot air.”
Proponents of the “windbag” view usually cite an 1890 article by New York Sun newspaper editor Charles Dana. At the time, Chicago was competing with New York to host the 1893 World’s Fair (Chicago eventually won), and Dana is said to have cautioned his readers to ignore the “nonsensical claims of that windy city.”
Dana is often credited with popularizing the “Windy City” moniker, yet according to David Wilton’s book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, researchers have never managed to find his original article. Many now dismiss it as a myth.
Even if Dana’s editorial does exist, it’s unlikely that either he or the World’s Fair debate were responsible for popularizing Chicago’s nickname.
Etymologist Barry Popik, a longtime researcher of the Windy City question, has uncovered evidence that the name was already well established in print by the 1870s—several years before Dana. Popik also dug up references showing that it functioned as both a literal reference to Chicago’s windy weather and a metaphorical jab at its supposedly boastful citizenry. Many of the citations are found in newspapers from other Midwest cities, which were in a rivalry with Chicago over who was the region’s main metropolis.
For example, an 1876 headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer used the phrase “That Windy 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 2006. “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.”
Since Chicago had previously used its lake breezes to promote itself as a summertime vacation spot, Popik and others conclude that the “Windy City” name may have started as a reference to weather and then taken on a double meaning as the city’s profile rose in the late-19th century.
Interestingly, although Chicago may have gotten its nickname in part because of its fierce winds, it’s not the breeziest town in the United States. In fact, meteorological surveys have often rated the likes of Boston, New York and San Francisco as having higher average wind speeds.