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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

(page 2 of 2)

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).


To celebrate our magazine’s 40th anniversary this December, we name the 40 best records, restaurants, movies, and more

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


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