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Ask Chicagoist: By Any Other Name?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Jun 29, 2007 3:40PM

Hello Chicagoist.

Why is Chicago called Chicago? I'm sure I should know this, but I don't. It's just the other day it dawned on me that "Chicago" is kind of a funny name for a city.

2007_06_askchicago.jpgDear Erstwhile Philosopher,

Just out of curiosity, what exactly were you doing the other day that made you spend time ruminating on the word "Chicago" and thinking about how "funny" it sounded? We're most assuredly not ones to judge, but you can't get much past Chicagoist. Were you ravenously eating lots of snacks when you were thinking about this?

Maybe some onions?

The usual story is that Chicago gets its name from the Miami and Illinois Native Americans that lived in the area back in the day. Because Chicago smelled so bad by the river (the more things change the more they stay the same, indeed) due to the wild leeks growing there, they started calling (what we call) the Chicago River by their word "sikaakwa" which meant "striped skunk." Remember -- we live on a swamp. It just plain smelled bad, kind of like skunks, so they used the same word for both negative olfactory experiences.

When French explorer LaSalle made his way into the area in 1680, he took the word and ran with it (and gave it the modern day spelling), naming the area around the Chicago River "Chicago" as well. It was LaSalle's report on his exploration and his eventual maps of the area where the word "Chicago" first appears in writing. He actually coined the term prior to actually visiting, but people believe he heard about the area by word of mouth. Although linguists insist that LaSalle's transcription was in error, and based on the Miami-Illinois word and how French should have been phonetically translated, Chicago should in fact be "Checagoua" or at least "Chicagoa."

These same nitpicky linguists are also quick to point out that the Native Americans would have called the area around the river something more like "Checagoukiongi." We think in that case we lucked out by LaSalle's bad transcription. "Checagoukiongi-ist" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Linguists, of course, are not happy leaving it at that, and debate abounds whether that quaint and, well, simple story does indeed encompass the facts. One school of thought in particular tries to debunk the skunk/onion theory entirely, but has yet to come up with a viable alternative. Although, one linguist in particular has many reasons why the skunk/onion theory is wrong. Unfortunately there aren't any recent updates on the debate that we can find. Next up: was Shakespeare really the writer of the plays to which he is attributed?

Nothing like a little Friday morning etymology!

Got bad breath? Need some advice? Email ask(at)chicagoist(dot)com.