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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alt text19. Ferris wheel Named for George W. G. Ferris, who created the first example for the Columbian Exposition.

18. cafeteria When John Kruger opened a self-service restaurant at the Columbian Exposition, he named it after the Spanish word for a coffee shop.

17. props Due respect. A product of rap music, “props” first appeared in a quotation from the 19-year-old rapper Roxane Shante in the July 29, 1990, edition of the Tribune.

16. kielbasa A direct borrowing from the Polish word for any kind of sausage, “kielbasa” as referring specifically to the garlicky, peppery Polish sausage of Maxwell Street fame was first used in an English context by Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March (1953).


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15. smoke-filled room The place where a decision is made in secret, perhaps corruptly. At the Republican presidential nominating convention in 1920, party leaders chose Warren G. Harding as their candidate in a room at the Blackstone Hotel that the Associated Press described with the now-famous phrase.

14. southpaw A left-handed person, especially a pitcher in baseball. Popularized by Finley Peter Dunne. Chicago sportswriters at the turn of the 20th century also provided the first recorded uses of “hit-and-run,” “pinch-hitting,” “home plate,” and “slugger.”

13. doo-wop Although the definitive first usage of “doo-wop” as a musical genre isn’t yet settled, the contenders all come from the pages of the Chicago Defender in the 1960s. (The term then was used retroactively to describe music from the 1950s as well.)

12. tho “Though,” as it was spelled at the Tribune between 1934 and 1975. Colonel Robert McCormick, the publisher of the paper, instituted spelling reforms in fits and starts, with varying degrees of success. Almost everyone today accepts “catalog” and “tranquility,” but “frate” and “iland,” not so much.

11. Mickey Finn A drink with a sedative (or, rarely, a purgative) secretly mixed in. The term comes from the name of the owner of a Chicago bar on State Street near 11th called the Lone Star Saloon. In 1903, Finn was accused of using drugged drinks to rob his customers.

10. house In reference to the style of music in which DJs mix together musical fragments on turntables. The term arose circa 1985 as a shortening of The Warehouse, a club at 206 South Jefferson Street where the form was born.

9. egghead A derogatory term for an intellectual. A 1918 letter from Carl Sandburg indicates that Chicago newspapermen used “egghead” to refer to highbrow editorial writers out of touch with the common man. In the 1950s, the word surged in popularity when the Chicagoan Adlai Stevenson was branded with the term in his unsuccessful presidential campaigns.

8. midway The section of a fair that houses the side­shows or amusements. The word was generalized from the Midway Plaisance at the south edge of Hyde Park, which served as the (small-m) midway for the Co­lumbian Exposition.

7. yuppie A somewhat derogatory term formed from the initial letters in “young urban professional.” First print usage was in the pages of this magazine, in Dan Rottenberg’s May 1980 feature on changing urban demographics.

6. two thumbs up The Chicago film reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert trademarked this phrase for movie criticism. Oppositely, in gladiatorial arenas, spectators gave a thumbs-up to indicate the combatant should be killed.

5. American dream First print reference (in its usual sense) from the Tribune, February 7, 1916: “If the American idea, the American hope, the American dream, and the structures which Americans have erected are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish.”

4. racketeer A participant in an illegal business, i.e., a racket. Only a decade after its first print usage in the Tribune in 1924, “racketeer” was mainstream enough to appear in the name of the Anti-Racketeering Act of 1934.

3. clout Political influence, in an extension of its earlier sense of a heavy blow. The Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet first used the term in print in 1958, although a 1937 citation from a book called Machine Politics referred to needing “clout from behind” in Chicago. Here’s more on this word’s origins.

2. skyscraper “The ‘sky-scrapers’ of Chicago outrival anything of their kind in the world,” said the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper in 1888—the first print usage of “skyscraper” to refer to buildings at a time when tall Chicago edifices included the 130-foot Montauk.

1. jazz The American Dialect Society’s “word of the 20th century.” The first instance of “jazz” in print referring to America’s native music appeared in the Tribune on July 11, 1915. The most recent lexicographic research says “jazz” meant “energy” or “pep” before that, and it probably traveled from California minor-league baseball to a banjo player named Bert Kelly, who started up a band in 1914 in Chicago, where the word caught on.


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!

12 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.

12 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."

12 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?

12 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.

12 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'.

12 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.

12 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.

12 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.

12 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.

12 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.

12 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.

12 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.

12 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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