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The history behind US city nicknames

Residents of Chicago try to catch a glimpse of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1915

Residents of Chicago try to catch a glimpse of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1913

How Denver got the nickname “Mile High City” is obvious. It’s a mile above sea level.

The same is true of Las Vegas and “Sin City.” In a place that promotes drinking and gambling, it’s easy to see why that caught on.

Even Los Angeles as the “City of Angels” is clear since that is what the name of the city means in Spanish.

But what about the cities that aren’t as obvious? They too have a fun history we should know about.

Let’s start with a contentious one: the “Windy City” of Chicago. First of all, anyone who has visited or resided in Wyoming – a state covered with wind turbines – might wonder why a non-Wyoming city has that title. Interestingly, the nickname’s origin isn’t necessarily just about the weather.

According to multiple resources and a search on the Library of Congress’ American Memory electronic database,, the four potential reasons why Chicago is known as the “Windy City” have to do with the weather, the World’s Fair, the rivalry with Cincinnati and politics.

The weather notion comes from the city being on the shores of Lake Michigan. But it’s far from the windiest city in the country. That title goes to Brockton, Mass., with a wind speed average of 14.3 mph. The idea of Chicago as the “Windy City” was summarized brilliantly in the “Freeborn County Standard” of Albert Lea, Minn., in November of 1892: “Chicago has been called the ‘windy’ city, the term being used metaphorically to make out that Chicagoans were braggerts. … But in another sense, Chicago is actually earning the title of ‘windy’ city. It is one of the effects of the tall buildings which engineers and architects did not foresee that the wind is sucked down into the streets.”

The World’s Fair theory is the most far-fetched. Most still assume that New York Sun editor Charles Dana was the first to use the term “Windy City” in his writings about the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair. But according to the USA Today, already in 1886, “Windy City” was being widely used across the country. There are citations of the use in “Sporting Life” in 1885 and again in 1886 the term would appear in a list of city nicknames. The Louisville Courier-Journal and New York Evening Telegram used the nickname “Windy City” prior to 1893. The first known attribution of Dana using “Windy City” wasn’t until 1933, a good four decades later.

The rivalry notion comes from the two cities being huge industry adversaries in the 1860s and 1870s. It comes also from the baseball rivalry between Chicago and Cincinnati. Sports stories in Cincinnati often used “Windy City” in the 1870s and 1880s. The four earliest accounts of “Windy City” involve Cincinnati in 1876. In these instances, the term is far from endearing. Cincinnati using the term as a dig at Chicago, much along the lines of Lea’s line, “to make that Chicagoans were braggerts. …” That ties into the next theory, as well.

The most believable notion has its origins in politics. The city’s politicians are so long-winded and full of hot air, and so many conventions were held in Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s, that this very well could be the nickname’s true source.

Since no one knows for sure where and when the nickname started, it is safe to assume all four theories had some degree of influence, no matter how small.

Since we mentioned Cincinnati, what about “Queen City?”

According to the Cincinnati Museum Center, “During the first 40 years after its founding, Cincinnati experienced spectacular growth. By the 1820, citizens, extremely proud of their city, were referring to it as The Queen City or The Queen of the West.”

Since New York has so many monikers – Big Apple, the City that Never Sleeps, Empire City and the City so Nice they Named it Twice – let’s focus on one: Gotham City.

Most believe it comes from the introduction of the Batman comics. It was in 1940 in the Batman issue No. 4 that the term was used for the first time. But according to the New York Public Library, it goes back much further than that. As the library states, “the term Gotham is tied to the author Washington Irving, famous for his short stories ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ It’s also here that we learn Irving was being less than flattering when he nicknamed the city in 1807.”

As the library points out, Irving was sort of a ringleader of a group known as the Lads of Kilkenny, a group described as a “loosely knit pack of literary-minded young blades out for a good time.”

These “lads” made their way to the Park Theater and Shakespeare Tavern where they eventually organized and created the literary magazine known as “Salmagundi,” a magazine that popularized New York culture and politics. In this magazine, according to the library, the nickname was popularized by Irving in the Nov. 11, 1807 edition. Irving took the name from the village of Gotham, Nottinghamshire, England, a place that, according to folklore, was inhabited by fools. According the New York Public Library, English proverbs tell of a village called Gotham or Gottam, meaning “Goat’s Town” in old Anglo-Saxon. Folk tales of the Middle Ages make Gotham out to be a village of simple-minded fools, perhaps because the goat was considered a foolish animal. So Irving was being far from complimentary when he used the term over 200 years ago.

But some tales describe the denizens of Gotham as only playing the fool, a ruse used to avert the wrath of the sinister King John. In terms of New York, the library adds that has gone in and out of favor every decade or so. The resurgence of the nickname, however, is tied to the Batman comics. Today, New Yorkers have embraced the use of Gotham City, no longer invoking a foolish village of goat herders or the dark city of the comics. Like “Windy City” and “Queen City,” it’s a permanent moniker and part of the character.

Knowing this history adds to the experience of visiting these cities. It also makes for great conversation starters.

Ian St. Clair is an award-winning writer who has close to 10 years of newspaper experience. He’s written about everything from the Denver Broncos and college football to community theater and romance novels. He now writes for You can find him at Google-Plus,

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