No one knows for sure when Chicago first acquired the nickname “The Windy City,” or what it really means. The earliest written references date to the 1870s, but its use in popular speech might go back further than that. Most people believe it refers to the wind that comes off nearby Lake Michigan and cuts through the city’s streets during winter months. Another theory credits the term to Chicago’s intense 19th-century rivalry with neighboring Cincinnati, Ohio; at the time, the term “windy” also meant “inclined to brag.”
Chicago has had many nicknames over the years, including “Second City,” “The Garden City,” “Paris of the Prairie,” “City of the Big Shoulders” and “The Big Onion” — the word “Chicago” means “onion.” “The Windy City” is perhaps its most famous moniker, applied since at least 1876 and used in song and story by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Mike Royko. Popular belief holds that it originated with Chicago’s successful self-promotion to become the site of the 1893 World Fair. Referring to the city’s verbal bluster, a New York newspaper editor called it “the Windy City.” Ongoing research, however, has revealed earlier references in regional newspapers.
Another theory holds that Chicago is called “the Windy City” because the city is windy. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago was rebuilt on a grid plan of straight streets going north-south and east-west. As residents of such cities know, this can create a “wind tunnel” effect, especially for winter winds coming off Lake Michigan, which forms the city’s eastern border. A 2002 climate data survey, however, demonstrated that Chicago is no windier than other cities of its size and location.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago competed with Cincinnati for a leading role in the lucrative meatpacking industry. Among the results of this rivalry was the creation of the White Sox baseball team, Chicago’s response to Cincinnati’s popular Red Stockings, who later became the Reds. Oddly, both cities competed for the nickname “Porkopolis,” which Cincinnati eventually won. With its central location and position as a hub of rail transportation, however, Chicago claimed more meatpacking business, and its vocal expression of its superiority might have led its rivals to call it “windy.”
There is some credence to this theory, because the first recorded references to “The Windy City” appear in Cincinnati newspapers. Linguistic scholars know, however, that a phrase might be used in speech for years or decades before it first appears in print. One of these scholars eventually might find the answer in a century-old newspaper archive, but if not, the true origin of the name “The Windy City” might never be known.