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Top 40 Chicago Words—Our Contributions to the English Language

OUR TALK: Chicago’s history weaves through English—we identified the 40 words where the city’s voice speaks loudest

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Illustrations of the top 40 Chicago words

The moment of creation for a word often remains elusive. Typically (at least before the Internet age), a word gains popu­larity in local speech and then gets written down somewhere. When lexicographers start tracing lineage, the closest they can come to pinpointing a word’s birth is frequently its first appearance in print.

Still, Chicago—City on the Make—has demonstrably had a hand in the genesis of many well-known words and phrases. Here are Chicago’s top 40 contributions to the English language, ranked by importance, the degree of Chicago influence, and overall Chicagoness, to coin a term.

40. Grabowski A hard-working, blue-collar, lunch-bucket type. Invented by Mike Ditka to describe the 1985 Bears.

39. freak Specifically, in the sense of a person who is con­temptible because of unusual behavior or appearance. First used in print by the Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne in his column “Mr. Dooley’s Chicago” in 1895. (Other uses of “freak” are centuries older.)

38. yuck it up First print appearance in Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964).

37. dagnabbit “Darn it!” First print usage in the Tribune on August 21, 1933.


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36. mudpack A beauty treatment involving the application of mud to the face. It first appeared in print as “mud-pack” in Ben Hecht’s A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago.

35. pipe dream An apparent reference to the visions of opium smokers, “pipe dream” first appeared in print—with a hyphen—in the Tribune in 1890, describing the impossibility of aerial navigation.

34. Dopp kit A shaving kit. Still patented, the term is shortened from Charles Doppelt & Co., a leather-goods manufacturer formerly based at Cermak Road and Wabash Avenue.

33. home in on To move toward a goal. First printed citation in the Tribune on December 7, 1944.

32. simonize To polish, especially with wax. From the brand name Simoniz, a car polish developed by George Simon in 1910 for Simons Manufacturing Company, which was located at 2121 South Michigan Avenue.

31. puh-leeze Extension of “please” to indicate pleading or sarcasm. First print appearance in the Tribune in 1927, spelled “puhlease,” in the column “A Line o’ Type or Two,” from a reader named Kathleen begging to have her letter printed: “Puhlease, R. H. L., R. H. L., phrint me contrib, jist wance.”

alt text30. bum rap In its original sense of a false criminal charge, the term “bum rap” first appeared in print on June 5, 1913, in the Tribune. In its extended sense of undeserved criticism or blame, it first appeared in print on September 30, 1921, also in the Tribune.

29. asswipe First print appearance in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953).

28. jinx Originally referring to curses in baseball, “jinx” first appeared in print in the Chicago Daily News in 1911. The word probably comes from either iynx, the Latin name for the wryneck bird, which was considered magical, or the title character of the 19th-century American popular song “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines” (a connection made by the word researcher Barry Popik).

27. gank To steal or to rob. Originally an underworld term, “gank” went mainstream in the late 1990s. The first printed reference appeared in the Tribune in 1989.

26. Pullman A train’s sleeping car. Named after the Chicago railroad baron George Pullman.

25. hootchy-kootchy A seductive dance. Although it’s associated with the dancer Little Egypt at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the first appearance of the term in print is from an 1898 column by Finley Peter Dunne.

24. razzmatazz The Chicago writer George Ade first used this word in 1899, in an un-doubled-z version, as a personification of the flu: “Mr. Grip Razmataz.” The next year, he used it again in what is probably the first instance of its current meaning: showy, stylish, or dazzling.

23. pooch Although the origin of “pooch” is uncertain (it may be related to the German term of endearment Putzi), it first appeared in the Tribune in 1906 as Pooch, the name of the missing dog belonging to the White Sox first baseman Jiggs Donohue.

22. cloud nine A state of bliss. Aside from the name of a boat, the first known print citation referred to a radio show called Cloud Nine, produced in 1950 by WBBM and sponsored by Wrig­ley. The variants “cloud seven” and “cloud eight” coexisted in the early days of the phrase, “eight” being the first record­ed usage, in 1935.

21. jungle gym Originally a Chicago-based company and its brand name, spelled Junglegym. The Jungle­gym’s patent application was filed in 1921, and printed references to two-word, lowercase “jungle gym” had already appeared by 1929.

20. flea-flicker A play in football in which the ball changes hands before a forward pass. The New York Times “On Language” columnist Ben Zimmer located Tribune citations dating back to 1911 that credit the play’s invention to Bob Zuppke, then the football coach at Oak Park High School (and later at the University of Illinois).


Illustrations: Rod Hunting


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