On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.
The Debunker: Is the "Windy City" Named for Bloviating Chicago Politicians?
One of life's finest small joys is watching some would-be know-it-all correct someone about something—and get it wrong. For example, after hearing a reference to the windy lake weather of Chicago, a certain kind of pedant likes to insist that the "Windy City" nickname has nothing to do with climate, but is actually a reference to the endless talk of hot air-filled Chicago politicians. How smug they are, these people who know something you don't! (This column is exempt from this problem, of course. I'm in the debunking game not to feel better about myself, but for the noble goal of educating my fellow man.)
The most common version of the "Windy City" myth credits New York newspaper editor Charles Dana with coining the phrase, when his city and Chicago were rivals in the fight for the 1893 World's Fair. But the story seems to be apocryphal; no one actually associated Dana with the phrase in print until 1933. A New York City parking ticket judge and dogged amateur etymologist named Barry Popik has spent years combing the Library of Congress for "Windy City" citations, and has made three discoveries. First, the nickname was used decades before Dana—as far back as 1858. Second, the nickname was often used by other Midwestern cities (particularly Cincinnati) to disparage boastful Chicago boosters, full of hot air. But third, the oldest citations played on the fact that Chicago was already well-known for its windy climate. It was a joke that only worked due to the double meaning.
In the mid-19th century, Chicago tried to brand itself as a summer resort, hoping to lure in visitors from all over the sultry Midwest with promises of cool breezes off of Lake Michigan. So the original wind in the Windy City was actually meteorological—but it seems that the double meaning of wind ("mere talk; idle words") did help the nickname catch on out of town. "The name of 'Windy City,' which is sometimes used by village papers in New York and Michigan to designate Chicago, is intended as a tribute to the refreshing lake breezes of the great summer resort of the West, but is an awkward and rather ill-chosen expression and is doubtless misunderstood," the Tribune insisted in 1886. In reality, the average wind speed in Chicago is 10.3 miles per hour, not much windier than New York or Los Angeles. The country's real Windy City last year was Nashville, which had 21 strong windstorms, with speeds topping out at 72 miles per hour. Chicago wasn't even in the top ten.
Quick Quiz: In 1975, the Chicago Winds of the World Football League changed their colors to green and white, as part of a high-profile attempt to lure what New York quarterback to the WFL?
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.