Just about everyone has heard the city of New Orleans, located in Louisiana along the Mississippi River, referred to as "The Big Easy." While the term has been used in everything from literature to sales brochures and even movies, its origins are somewhat obscure. There are actually several theories on how New Orleans came to have the nickname.
The nickname may be related to the rich musical heritage of New Orleans. The city has long been a haven for jazz and blues musicians who wanted a place to hone their craft. Legend has it that the earliest use of the Big Easy had to do with the fact that there were so many ways for a good musician to make a living in New Orleans. From performing on the streets and in the parks to playing private parties and in nightclubs, no other American city was said to be so open and so supportive of musical artists. The nickname might have been coined to refer to the ease with which a struggling musician could find work and study music at the same time.
Another possible origin for the nickname is connected to the relaxed attitude toward alcohol consumption that was found in New Orleans, even during the days of Prohibition. The city, perhaps more than any other, continued to enjoy an active night life that offered everything from bathtub gins to the finest wines. Anyone who wanted to enjoy a drink or two could easily find something to his or her liking among the many nightspots of New Orleans. The name could. therefore, have referred to the great ease of enjoying an evening with the alcohol of one’s choice.
The relatively low cost of living in New Orleans, in comparison to many major US cities, has also been suggested as the origin of the nickname. Musicians were not the only professionals who could easily find work in the city. Coupled with affordable housing and plenty of fresh food and drink, even a modest paycheck would allow a relatively comfortable standard of living.
Whatever the origins of the nickname, there is no doubt that references to New Orleans as the Big Easy have increased dramatically since the release of a film of the same name in 1987. Set in New Orleans, the film introduced the culture and atmosphere of the city to many people that only knew it through travelogues. Today, just about everyone knows exactly what is being discussed when they hear the nickname mentioned. Whether conjuring images of an easy lifestyle, plenty of entertainment, or a place where music plays day and night, there is no doubt the Big Easy is now firmly a part of the national vocabulary, and will be for many years to come.