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



4 years ago
Posted by kevwal

You forgot a classic- "jagoff"

4 years ago
Posted by Antlers

You forgot, "He-gone."

4 years ago
Posted by twocentsable

I think there were a few traffic words made up by Chicago radio traffic reporters. Words like 'rubber neck' and 'grid lock' … I know there are others I can't think of.

4 years ago
Posted by RouteBG

In re traffic words suggested by Twocentsable, what about "gapers block?" Moreover, an all-things-Chicago "web publication" or blog by this name has been online for the last several years.

4 years ago
Posted by Lawrenceofthedesert

The three most uniquely Chicagoan words are tavern, pal and jagoff, followed closely by "pop" for a soda ("soda" in Chicago being strictly an ice cream creation).

The quintessential Chicago phrase that has confused visitors for decades is "What is that?" when said after an introduction. The question refers to a person's last name and wants to know its ethnic derivation -- in Chicago, you don't know someone until you know where their people came from.

4 years ago
Posted by TominDolton

I am a teacher who did a unit on Chicago and found the following on a website:

How to Speak Chicago-ese
G'bless dis here town! An a course...Mike Di'ka
How to speak Chicago-ese...
1. Grachki (grach'-key) is Chicago for Garage Key as in, "Yo, Theresa, waja do wit da grachki? Howmy supposta cut da grass if don't git intada grach?"
2. Uptadaendada (up-ta-da-en'-dada) as in, "Joey, you kin ride yur bike uptadaendada alley but not acrost or I'll bust yur butt."
3. Sammich. Chicagoese for sandwich. When made with sausage, it's a sassage sammich; with shredded beef, it's an Italian beef sammich, a local delicacy consisting of piles of spicy meat in a perilously soggy bun.
4. Da. The definite article is a key part of Chicago speech, as in da tree bears or da Mare -- the latter denoting, for as long as he wants it to, Richard M. Daley, or Richie, as he's often known.
5. Jewels. Not family heirlooms or a tender body region, but a popular appellation for one of the region's dominant grocery chains, to wit, "I'm goin' to da Jewels to pick up some sassage." As in most Chicago pluralizations, the S is pronounced with a hissing sound, rather than the usual Z sound of American pluralization.
6. Field's: Marshall Field, a prominent Chicago department store. Also Carson Pirie Scott, a major department store chain, is called Carson's etc.
7. Tree. The number between two and four. "We were lucky dat we only got tree inches of snow da udder night"
8. Prairie. A vacant lot, especially one on which weeds are growing.
9. Over by dere. i.e.over by there, a prolix way of emphasizing a site presumed familiar to the listener. As in, "I got the sassage at da Jewels down on Kedzie, over by dere."
10. Kaminski Park. Perhaps the high concentration of ethnic Poles makes people want the White Sox to be playing in this mythical ballpark, rather than in their true home, Cellular Field formerly known as Comiskey Park.
11. Frunchroom as in, "Getottada frunchroom wit dose muddy shoes." It's not the parlor. It's not the living room. In the land of the bungalow, it's the frunchroom, a named derived, linguists believe, from front room.
12. Use. Not the verb but the plural pronoun you. "Where's use goin'?"
13. Downtown. Anywhere south of the zoo and north of Soldiers Field near the lake.
14. BoysTown: A section on Halsted Ave., between Belmont and Addison, which is lined with gay bars on the west and east sides of the street. "Didn't I see uze in Boystown in front of da Manhole?"
15. Braht: Short for Bratwurst. "Gimme a braht wit kraut."
16. Cashbox: Traffic reporter slang for tollbooths. "Dere's a delay at da cashbox on da Skyway"
17. Goes: Past or present tense of the verb say. For example, "Then he goes, 'I like this place'!"
18. Guys: Used when addressing two or more people, regardless of each individual's gender.
19. Pop: A soft drink. Don't say soda in this town. "What kinda pop you got?"
20. Sliders: Nickname for hamburgers from White Castle, a popular Midwestern burger chain. "Dose sliders I had last night gave me da runs."
21. The Taste: The annual Taste of Chicago Festival, a huge extravaganza in Grant Park featuring samples of Chicagoland's fine cuisine. Takes place around and before the Fourth of July holiday.
22. Jieetyet: this is used to ask ;"Did you eat yet?"
23. Winter and Construction: Punch-line to the joke, "What are the two seasons in Chicago?"

3 years ago
Posted by RouteBG

Nothing says "provincial," or "hick town," perhaps, than false claims to the origin of things. There are several in this article and in the comments.

"Props" would be one example. Otis Redding —and later Aretha Franklin in her better-known version— uses a variant of the term in his 1965 song, "Respect." ["And all I'm asking in return honey / Is to give me my propers when you get home."]

"Jazz," whether in reference to music —or, earlier, to sex— well predates the Tribune article and has its origins in the South [New Orleans or South Carolina being among the locations], possibly borrowing from an African term.

As for "jagoff," many sources cite a Pittsburgh origin. The term "pop" for carbonated soft drinks was the most widely used term in the US for them, and is heard everywhere but the East Coast and the South, according to the Dictionary of Regional American English.

Thus to the editors of Chicago Magazine, I have only one word [or is it two?] —#31 : Puh-Leeze!

11 months ago
Posted by MarsMars

The difference between RouteBG and Chicago Magazine? Chicago Magazine cites its sources. Nothing says 'disgruntled' or 'feeling left out' like an insufferable know it all who can't point to where his vast treasure trove of (made up) knowledge can be found.

11 months ago
Posted by Catbus

Hate to correct twocentsable, but "gridlock" was coined in New York by Sam Schwartz, then the city's transportation commissioner. Chicago can, however, take credit for the term "gapers' block."

11 months ago
Posted by ChiSux

Y'all forgot the biggest one... "Scrubs" - most people outside of the United States of America think of the clothing medical professionals use when they hear the word scrubs however, Americans ALL know what the word means which first appeared in the freaking Tribune in refers to the so called baseball team on the north side of Chicago. Cubs/ get it right?

11 months ago
Posted by BigOldGeek

OED disagrees with you, RouteBG, as does Merriam Webster. Both cite the Trib 1990 reference as the first printed use of "props" though "propers" is noted earlier.

Jazz originated in California baseball writing but didn't refer to music in print until the Trib citation. "Jasm" did originate much earlier, but just as "propers" is not "props", "jasm" is not "jazz".

Your case for "jagoff" is stronger, but it is disputed.

"Pop" referring to a drink predates the city's origin. It's first noted in 1812.

11 months ago
Posted by EileenRulez

I think Props is older than that. In Aretha Franklin's song "Respect", she uses an older form of this: 'propers'.

It's in the lyrics posted for this video:

Relevant verse:
"I'm about to give you all of my money
And all I'm askin' in return, honey
Is to give me my propers
When you get home (just a, just a, just a, just a)
Yeah baby (just a, just a, just a, just a)
When you get home (just a little bit)
Yeah (just a little bit"

If this is an older version, it seems to mean "Due Credit", or "Credit where credit is due", which is in line with the current usage of 'props'.

11 months ago
Posted by a

I doubt it. Chicago Magazine has been wrong many times in my experience. Just take this list with a bunch of salt, like the others. I wish I didn't even click the link. HOnestally I didn't even read past the first four words. I saw Chicago Magazine and thought to myself..get me outa here. I mean maybe in Lake Forest they're right, but so often not around here.

11 months ago
Posted by landthejdubs

To all you freaks, eggheads, asswipes, southpaws, racketeers, and yuppies: we might be Grabowskis but dagnabbit, we followed our pipe dreams, homed in on the American dream, did not jinx, gank, or Mickey Finn your drink; puh-lease save your clout and don't give us no bum rap, dancing the hoochy-koochy down the midway put us on the map; give us two thumbs up and props for we gave you house and doo-wop; we can't forget all that jazz, "you're welcome" world, we're Chicago, and yes, we are the razzmatazz.

11 months ago
Posted by Fizzball

First printed use doesn't necessarily make a word a Chicago word. So the OED cites the Trib as first printing "props"? That's nice, except the paper was quoting Roxanne Shante, A RAPPER FROM QUEENS.

11 months ago
Posted by drummergirl

Tomindalton - I believe it is Soldier Field not Soldiers Field. Some of your examples I am guilty of and some I did not know. My husband for years has been saying "frunch room" I've been asking for years if he's saying "front room" or "french room". I never heard that term until I married him and he and his sisters all say it. The weird part, he grew up in Roselle and me in Bloomingdale. Our towns are right next to each other.

RouteBG - I grew up saying "Pop" but when I went to Geneseo, which is near the Quad Cities off of Route 80, I was laughed at for saying pop. They say soda and they aren't on the east coast nor south. In fact, when I went to college, the people from smaller towns all called it "soda". That's when I learned it was more of a Chicago phrase.

11 months ago
Posted by Nort' Sider

Everyone should look at TOMINDOLTON posting back in 2010. Not completely sure on his claims of word origin, but his pronunciation and grammar usage is pretty good on the vernacular of Da SOUT' Siders. While it is not appropriate to call Sout Side speech 'debased,' we on the Nort' side speak more better. If you want to hear a dead-on Sout Sider talking, listen for the movie reviews by Da Regular Guy on WXRT-FM.

Drummergirl--- it might say Soldier Field on the signage, (instead of Toilet Bowl) but the whole city knows it as Soldiers. Apostrophy's placement or even its existence not an issue.

11 months ago
Posted by girl-a

TOMINDOLTON and others

What does "did a unit on in school" mean? Either you're from here or you're not. Not everyone in the city talks like a south-side-grabowski. A lot of these pronunciations are the culture of the coasts condescendingly conflating rural, midwestern, rube-identity to cover the breadth and diversity that this city has offered as part of its rich history.

11 months ago
Posted by Nort' Sider

@Girl-A on your posting a few minutes ago about TOMINDOLTON posting in 2010...I agree #12 and #18 (use guys)in TOD's list are East Coast. I first heard them in common use by collitch room mates from New York and New England urban areas in the early 1960's. Before that, never heard those usages. Also agree #3 sammich is a newish import. The rest seem organically local to Chicago. Maybe not coined here, but in common use for decades at least?

In the world of pronunciation, the thing over our heads keeping the rain out is a 'rruhff.'

But you do raise an interesting point about origins. There is some opinion that organizied crime adopted vocabulary and speech patterns from Mario Puzzo's Godfather in a chicken/egg situation.

Not unlike the emerging habit of pronouncing the 't' in often. Which has seemed to arise from a social signalling affectation among self appointed intellectuals and social elites and gradually spreading through newsreaders and on air opinionators.

Agenda rant concluded.

11 months ago
Posted by Nort' Sider

On the 'rruff' thing just above. I recall this being called to my attention by a school teacher in 1952 or '53. She asked the class to pronounce the word and when we did, told us it was a uniqe sound she'd never heard before arriving a few weeks previous.

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