LINGUIST List 11.1676

Wed Aug 2 2000

Sum: 'Chicago' Etymology

Editor for this issue: Scott Fults <>


  1. carljweber, Re: LINGUIST 11.1611 'Chicago' Etymology

Message 1: Re: LINGUIST 11.1611 'Chicago' Etymology

Date: Tue, 1 Aug 2000 14:22:31 -0500
From: carljweber <>
Subject: Re: LINGUIST 11.1611 'Chicago' Etymology

Carl Jeffrey Weber

/Sheka:kwa/ was the basic Proto-Algonquian form for 'skunk'. It can be
further broken into identifiable 'urine' + animal marker. Whether or
not this /sheka:kwa/ is the form that gave Chicago its name, as
Algonquianist dictionaries record, has been contested in local
scholarship by Dr. William Barry, founder of the Chicago Historical
Society, and among others, the historians Andreas, Quaif, Blanchard,
and Pierce.

If an intelligent non-linguist layman would like an etymology based on
breaking down the word, it would be: 'chic' (urine) + 'ag' (animal
marker) which equals 'urine animal'. However, it must be kept in mind
that 'urinating animal' is closer. The root is 'urine'. The end o in
'Chicago' I'll call a "vestigial stem extender" (or vestigial noun
formative) - as it might be called in Algonquian linguistics. Three
syllables. Chicago.

An earlier form, four syllables (but still really three if you give
the glide its consonantal value) -- as seen in some of the earliest
French maps -- could be summed up in <chicagoua>. Notice the
not-yet-vestigial stem extender -ou- (an unrounded glide) and the
following -a (the target vowel of the glide). The -a is the
single/animate gender marker. When the final -a was lost to speech,
the glide seems to have become a high unrounded back vowel which with
time and Americanization gave us the current o sound in the word. Four
syllables, <chicagoua>.

There's a still earlier form in the intermediate language (see
below). But this earlier form had lost ITS ending by the time the
French began writing the name <chicagoua> on maps.

When the French first heard the word, they obviously had to have heard
the word spoken in some particular language -- developing from the
Proto-Algonquian language family roots. The root meaning of the word
would have been understood over thousands of miles of navigable
waters, among the related tribes. What particular language 'Chicago'
is from (if the question is productive at all) seems to have been
narrowed to the following: Ojibwe, Meskaakii (Fox), Miami-Illinois,
and Cree.

Some of the forms (in all but Cree) of the intermediate languages:
zhigaagwanzh		Ojibwe 	
shikaakwashi		Meskaakii	 
shikaakonki 		Miami 
shikaakoki 	Miami 	

Algonquianist scholars are not sure whether these intermediate forms
are locatives (indicating place) or plurals. In local scholarship, the
dominant (vs the dormant) view has never questioned that these forms
have been anything else but locative. Chicago's understanding of its
own name is that 'Chicago' means "at the Allium tricoccum". Because of
the bad smell, this plant -- a leek -- shared the word "skunk" with
the animal. Broken down even more, as here presented, 'urine' is the
root in 'urine animal', but 'urinating animal' is closer to the
Algonquian conceptualization.

(There are certain constraints in the locative vs plural
uncertainty. Neither plurals nor locatives end in a vowel. Shikaakoki
"on the skunk" is said to be rare in Algonquian and therefore probably
not locative. The /shikaakonki/ form, with what I'll call "intrusive
-n", has not been adequately explained. Some of the problem is in the
calligraphy of the source documents. In the roundhands and italics
used in the writing styles of the late 1600s, the intended letter
combination -ou- often looked very much like -on- when written
quickly. It's on French maps. Whoever set the printing type from the
written notes even has LaSalle saying 'chicagon'. This no doubt has
stymied many.
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