Travelers to Chicago may experience the wind gusts that come off Lake Michigan, get tossed around a bit and think, “So this is why it’s called the Windy City.” The nickname, which dates back to the late 1870s, is deceiving: Chicago is literally a windy city, but that’s not what the phrase was intended to reference.
Talk to different people and you’ll get different answers, but most fingers point to Charles A. Dana, once the editor of the New York Sun—a paper published between 1833 and 1950—who wrote an editorial that said Chicago was windy because of its full-of-hot-air politicians. The Chicago Tribune even published a column in 2004, which they hold as the “definitive article on the term,” giving Dana credit. During the time of Dana’s proclamation, Chicago and New York were competing to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Tribune’s column writes that the famous phrase comes from when Dana advocated against the “nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not hold a world’s fair even if they won it.”
The problem with using Dana as a source is that no one has ever been able to find this legendary editorial. Not even a date of publication.
According to Barry Popik, a New York City parking-ticket judge by day and a word sleuth by night, he has found the true origins of the phrase. He came across an entry in a May 9, 1876 Cincinnati Enquirer article with the headline, “THAT WINDY CITY. Some of the Freaks of the Last Chicago Tornado.” Popik said the headline used innuendo to comment on the speakers who were full of wind and that there was a windstorm. This is the earliest found reference of Chicago being called the Windy City, predating Dana’s use of the phrase by a little more than a decade.
Still, both the Tribune and the Chicago Public Library stand by the fact that Dana popularized the term, even if he didn’t coin it.