Chicago’s colorful contributions to the English language

chicago-must-see-listMy Aug. 17 Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

A couple of weeks ago on Twitter, Big Ten Network anchor Mike Hall started a #GreatChicagoAccentWords hashtag that evoked responses such as “Sox,” “Cicero” and “Comiskey,” as well as “Sausage,” “Sears” and, simply, “Chicago.”

Go ahead and say them yourself in your finest “Superfans” impersonation. Fun, right?
As much as it’s a city of streetscapes and skyscrapers, Chicago is also a city of words – and the birthplace of many of them too.

Chicago Magazine selected the city’s “Top 40 Contributions to the English Language,” providing origins and definitions and of that list, I’ve picked my 10 favorites – along with my own commentary about each.

As a Chicagoan and a words guy myself, I could hardly resist.

Pipe dream: An apparent reference to the visions of opium smokers, “pipe dream” first appeared in print – with a hyphen – in the Chicago Tribune in 1890, describing the impossibility of aerial navigation.

Now it just describes the impossibility of on-time flights at O’Hare.

Jinx: Originally referring to curses in baseball, “jinx” first appeared in print in the Chicago Daily News in 1911. The word probably comes from iynx, the Latin name for the wryneck bird, which was considered magical.

Or it simply came from the Cubs.

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.

I wish I recovered from the flu as well as that word did.

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.

Ironically, it’s now the Sox’s offense that’s been a dog. And missing.

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.

With Chicago’s indoor smoking ban, they’re now just called “rooms.” But they’re probably still corrupt.

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.”

Chicago’s contribution to baseball: Few W’s, lots of words.

Mickey Finn: A drink with a sedative 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.

Now, it’s Chicago’s drink prices that are robbery.

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.

You’re welcome, America.

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.


Skyscraper: “The ‘sky-scrapers’ of Chicago outrival anything of their kind in the world,” said the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper in 188 – the first print usage of “skyscraper” to refer to buildings at a time when tall Chicago edifices included the 130-foot Montauk.

Broad shoulders. Big buildings. Bold words.