LINGUIST List 12.3102

Sun Dec 16 2001

Sum: Chicago Etymology Revisited

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. carljweber, 'Chicago' Etymology Revisited

Message 1: 'Chicago' Etymology Revisited

Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2001 10:07:13 -0600
From: carljweber <>
Subject: 'Chicago' Etymology Revisited

'Chicago' Etymology Revisited
Carl Jeffrey Weber

In August of 2000 I ended my Chicago etymology comments with, "Not 
today, not next week, but sometime in the future I intend to refine and 
again summarize my data."

Although I can not, still, with confidence say what the etymology of the 
word is, there are, nevertheless, as a result of this continuing 
investigation, various new and noteworthy linguistic, cartographic, and 
historical findings.

In addition to input by more than a dozen Algonquianists and other 
linguists, there's been an extensive investigation of ALL the available 
relevant narratives and maps before 1700. These have been 
chronologically ordered, with allowance made for questionable examples, 
and examined in their historical settings.

The two standing etymologies of Chicago, by Virgil J. Vogel (1958) and 
John F. Swenson (1991), each propose their own archetypical forms, 
"Chicagon" and "Chicagoua," and claim the word is regional, i.e., 

My investigations have found new "earliest attestations" in a text 
(1680, a La Salle report) and on a map (1684, Franquelin's "La 
Louisiane," inspired by La Salle). A scan of the map, as a result of 
this investigation, has been recently acquired by the Newberry Library 
from the Harvard Library, where it had been tracked. The map shows La 
Salle's grand design for the vast Louisiana. The plan was intended for, 
and presented to, Louis XIV, who granted La Salle's plan.

The data show the original form of the word was "Checagou" (on a few 
maps, "Chekagou"). With only one exception, this form is substantiated 
by the evidence. (The exception, Henri Joutel, has the famous "onions" 
quote, 1687, to which the foundation of the skunk/onion theory adverts 
- and as will be suggested below, seems to have been a punning 
linguistic hoax!) There is a map from 1685 (Minet's) that Vogel cites as 
the earliest use of the word on a map (Checago), but this is a defective 
tracing, and impossible for simple reasons not here related. Of special 
note, the original written form I posit has "Che-" and NOT "Chi-"; also 
note, there is no "-a" on the end.

By way of this etymological investigation, the various data indicate 
that La Salle introduced, popularized, and literally put Chicago on the 
map. The uses of this form, La Salle's "Checagou" (with the one 
mentioned legitimate exception), are found exclusively before 1697 -- 
the first seventeen years of the word's attested use. The uses are ALL 
traceable to La Salle's influence. Swenson's conclusion that "Chicagoua" 
was original, is not corroborated by the evidence. The "-a" at the end 
of the word was an addition that appeared nearly two decades AFTER La 
Salle's first use, and subsequent use by others. The terminal "-a" was 
not, as Swenson suggests, pre-existing and "conventionally" dropped.

Vogel's "Chicagon" represents one of the more entertaining threads of 
Chicago etymology. There is an enduring and pervasive idea that in 
Chicago's etymological provenance there is somewhere to be found an "at 
the" nasal locative morpheme that at some point fell off the end of the 
word. Many still have an attachment to this idea. However, this thread 
is to be traced back to a typographical error (!) found in the 1714 
English translation of Henri Joutel's narrative. (This is the short 
version, Joutel's long version was made available by Pierre Margry in 
1876-86. Vogel was not aware of the long version when he wrote in 1958, 
and he executed some extreme blunders.) Joutel's 1714 "Chicagon" should 
have been "Chicagou," as in Margry.

But the prize for historical Chicago etymology befuddlement should be 
bestowed on Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. He was popularly regarded in the 
19th century as the foremost scholar of all things Indian. In the many 
editions of his immensely influential work, he parsed "Chicago" as 
"great+porcupine+place of." Joutel's 1714 locative typo ("-on") was 
passed on by Schoolcraft to Vogel. However, there WAS NO locative 
morpheme. In addition, Schoolcraft disseminated the "great" thread found 
in Chicago etymology, a thread that was quite energetic until the 1930s 
(the "great" is also found in Louis Hennepin, 1697, but will not be 
elaborated here). The "Chi-" of Chicoutimi IS supported by various kinds 
of evidence to mean "great". The Chicoutimi River, in Canada, is on 18th 
Century maps translated as "great discharge". The "Chi-" of Chicago, 
meaning "great," however, is currently universally rejected by 

DATA: (1) There IS a proto-Algonquian word for "skunk," that in various 
derived languages, three hundred years ago, no doubt sounded very much 
like La Salle's "Checagou." (2) In fact, La Salle's spelling is 
acceptable for "skunk" in Fox/Sauk/Kickapoo and in Chaouanon (Shawnee) 
- but these were NOT languages native to the area. (3) In 1687 is found 
the principal evidence for the current onion theory -- the Indians told 
Joutel that the place got its name ("Chicagou") from the onions that 
grew abundantly in the region. (4) However, three years before this, La 
Salle's "Checagou" (with a "k") had been put on Franquelin's official 
royal map. (5) Joutel's "Chi-" spelling (I repeat myself) is the only 
exception to La Salle's "Che-," found in the first seventeen years of 
the word's history. (6) The Indians did not tell Joutel that the word in 
Miami/Illinois was transparently the same word as "skunk" -- in fact it 
wasn't until the English narrative of John Tanner, in the 1830s, that 
the "skunk" etymology comes up at all. (7) In the Miami/Illinois 
language there WAS a word, "Chicagoua," that meant "skunk" and also 
referred to the Alium tricoccum, a sometimes foul smelling alium, which 
John Kirkland identified over a century ago as the onion (garlic/leek) 
of Joutel -- the identification confirmed and put on extensively 
footnoted foundations by Swenson. (8) La Salle opened up the Illinois 
territory in 1680 -- the same year Checagou was first written. This is 
no coincidence. Vogel and Swenson's presentations to the contrary, there 
is NO evidence for the word's use before 1680, even though several maps 
and narratives, before La Salle, had the opportunity to present it 
(Jolliet, Marquette, Allouez). From this early period, there is no 
evidence that any language but Miami/Illinois employed the "skunk" word 
as a stand-alone absolute for a plant. In a compound, and found only 
much later, the word was used adjectively, but this is not surprising, 
as a handy word for "foul smelling". It seems to have referred to the 
Sympocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage), not the Alium tricoccum. This use, 
and Leonard Bloomfield's data, are removed in time sufficiently that 
they are quite feeble as etymological support. 

Three reasons that Chicago was NOT named after the onions (that 
themselves were named with the same Miami/Illinois word as "skunk") are: 
(1) The first two decades of the many examples in texts and on maps show 
a spelling (with "Che-" and with no terminal "-a") that was NOT a 
regional (Miami/Illinois) word. (2) The texts and maps are clear that 
the word had an application to the corridor from the southwest corner of 
Lake Michigan to the Illinois River -- more than fifty miles. This has 
not previously been clarified. It is not compelling that the entire 
distance should have been named after a small onion area up near Lake 
Michigan. (3) That the onions were associated with the skunk-word in the 
Miami/Illinois language is seen in Le Boulanger's (c. 1720) French -- 
Miami/Illinois Dictionary. Although this is occasionally cited, what has 
not been cited, amazingly, is that next to the Chicago word, as it 
indicates our particular alium, is written quite clearly the word 
"abusive". Given the field of repulsive sensory experience conveyed by 
"skunk," and given the fact that other Indian words also appear next to 
the onion (garlic/leek) entry as other names for it, it is, accordingly, 
not difficult to conclude that Le Boulanger's "abusive" stood in the 
same relation to it as in our modern English dictionaries the words 
"slang," "offensive," or "vulgar" might appear next to a particular 
entry. It was maledicta -- here, perhaps a humorous verbal fraud -- a 
punning homonym on La Salle's word -- a linguistic hoax on the white 

To summarize the main findings, so far, of this etymological 
investigation: La Salle introduced, popularized and literally put 
Chicago on the map; earlier etymological attestations in a text (1680) 
and on a map (1684) have been identified; the 1714 English translation 
of Joutel initiated the typographical nasal locative error; Schoolcraft 
is responsible for the wide dissemination of it, plus he spread the idea 
that "Chi-," in this case, was equivalent to "great"; the area to which 
the word applied seems to have been too extensive to have been named for 
the onions in one small part of it; and considering Le Boulanger's 
dictionary, what the Indians told Joutel in 1687 may well have been 
punning maledicta on La Salle's "Checagou".

Questions and comments welcome. To be continued.

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