LINGUIST List 12.3157

Fri Dec 21 2001

Disc: "Chicago" Etymology, Last Posting

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  • Michael Mccafferty, Re: Summary of "Chicago: Etymology

    Message 1: Re: Summary of "Chicago: Etymology

    Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2001 08:11:58 -0500 (EST)
    From: Michael Mccafferty <>
    Subject: Re: Summary of "Chicago: Etymology

    Re Linguist 12.3102

    On Wed, 19 Dec 2001, Michael Mccafferty wrote:

    The following includes a response to Mr. Carl Weber's message from Friday, December 20, 2001 on the etymology of the place name "Chicago". I appreciate the the LINGUIST moderators' indulgence in allowing me post this message since place name etymologies are not the province of LINGUIST. For benefit of the reader, my comments will be preceded by asterisks: ****

    > > > Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2001 10:07:13 -0600 > > > From: "carljweber" <> > > > Subject: 'Chicago' Etymology Revisited > > > > > > 'Chicago' Etymology Revisited > > > Carl Jeffrey Weber > > > ****Mr. Weber's enthusiasm for this place name is good. But his work as problems. The problems he encounters and the conclusions he draws derive from an unfamiliarity with the Miami-Illinois language and with 17th- and 18th-century French orthography.

    > > > 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. > > > > Note that a review of the narratives and maps cited below is only a small > > portion of what is relevant to this study. More on this later. > > > > > > > > > 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., > > > Miami/Illinois. > > > ****For the record, the late Virgil Vogel was a history professor from Chicago who wrote extensively on Native American place names in the Midwest. Although not a linguist, his place name analyses are for the most part correct. In addition, he also unearthed many fine onomastic finds in his day. He was a great admirer of the native peoples. His papers, several boxes of them, are now at the Newberry Library. Swenson is a Chicago attorney, avocational botanist and an expert on onions. His paper on "Chicago" is extensively researched and his findings on the place name are correct. His article is well worth a read if you are interested. Near the end of the article he makes some linguistic observations that are ingenous. However, these are moot as regards his essential analysis of the place name.

    More below.

    > > > 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. > > > > ****For the record, Franquelin produced two maps of North America in 1684.

    > > > 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!) > > > > Re: Checagou~Chekagou > > > > 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. > > ****Although the point is not relevant to the discussion, the Minet map, for the record, has <Checagou>, the final <-u-> being barely discernible to the eye. More below.

    > > 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.

    **** Phonemic /-wa/ was undoubtedly part of the original recording which La Salle's coterie in France rewrote <-ou>. This was a common scribal blunder in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The original problem was two-fold: a free-wheeling use of the digraph 8 in the New World and a narrow understanding of its phonemic possibilities in France. In the recording of the Miami-Illinois language, in word-initial position, this orthographic symbol can represent /w-/, sometimes /o:w-/ before a vowel, and /o-/ ~ /u-/ before a consonant. In intervocalic position it stands for /-w-/, sometimes /-o(:)w-/. Between consonants that are not followed by /w/ and a following vowel it stands for either /o(:)w/ - ~ /u(:)-/. When it appears between two consonants,the glyph represents /-o(:)-/ ~ /-u(:)-/. And in word-final position, 8 typically represents /-o(:)/ ~ /-u(:)/.

    ( := vowel length )

    This brief synopsis presents the commonly recognized phonological meanings of 8. And determining its intended pronunciation in any given word within these contexts is not all that problematic. However, some Frenchmen also used 8 indiscriminately to signify /wa/, and with this additional phonological possibility enters the specter of ambiguity. Among the early Jesuit missionaries in the Illinois Country, for example, only those who worked on the Illinois-French dictionary commonly attributed to Jacques Gravier were somewhat careful to avoid using 8 for /wa/, aware that this orthographic symbol was a phonological shapeshifter.

    An example of the problem that 8 can create is seen in the holograph journal of Father Jacques Marquette in the form <Chachag8essi8>, the name of an Illinois trader whom the priest met in 1675 during his winter stay near present-day Chicago. In this man's name the first <-8-> stands predictably for /-w-/, but the final <-8> was intended by Marquette to represent none other than /-wa/, since the Illinois term is /$aah$aakweehsiwa/ ($=sh). Although final -8 was certainly transliterated quite regularly and uncritically to <-ou>, as we can see in <Chachagwessiou>, this is a mistaken transcription of the same personal name since the word-final vowel sequence /-io/ ~ /-iu/, represented here by orthographic <-iou>, does not even exist in Miami-Illinois.

    Other examples of the use of 8 for final phonemic /-wa/ produced in the Illinois Country in the early 1700s appear in <monsw8> for /moonswa/ 'deer', and <irenans8> for /irenaswa/, the Old Illinois term for 'bison'. <Chicagou> is simply Miami-Illinois /$ikaakwa/ 'striped skunk', and figuratively 'wild leek'. One of the few people to have actually transcribed the term correctly was Jacques Gravier, a Jesuit missionary in the Illinois Country in the late 1600s and early 1700s and an expert in the Miami-Illinois language. He wrote the place name <Chicagou"a> (an umlaut over the <-u-> (Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations, 65:100-1). I believe Swenson mentions the Gravier spelling.

    Another good example of a misunderstood final 8 is the historically recorded names of two successive Miami-Illinois-speaking Tamaroa leaders in the late 1600s and early 1700s who bore the same term as a personal name. Even though their names were commonly spelled "Chicagou" ~ "Chicago" in the published texts, the form */$ikaaku/ ~ */$ikaako/ has never existed in Miami-Illinois; there is only the independent noun /$ikaakwa/ and the initial /$ikaakw-/ used in forming composite expressions.

    It is important to note that /$ikaawka/ 'striped skunk' (i.e., 'wild leek) was (is) the name of the **Chicago River**. It did not refer originally to a site as the name does today. The river's name was based on a salient plant in its watershed. Naming a river after a plant that is abundant in its watershed is a common Miami-Illinois place naming practice. This practice never indicated that the plant grew *everywhere* along the river but that it grew in eye-catching abundance at some point(s). Other examples of this practice include /oonsaalamooni siipiwi/ 'bloodroot river' (Indiana's Salamonie River) and /ahsenaami$i siipiiwi/ 'maple sugar tree river' (west-central Indiana's Sugar Creek). This botany-based place naming practice also exists in other Algonquian languages.

    > > > 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.

    ****Mr. Weber does seem to be correct on this particular point. Misreading/miscopying n for u and vice versa is one of the most common mistakes in Western European orthographies. It should be noted, however, that /$ikaakonki/ 'at the striped skunk' *is* an attested Miami name for the **site** of Chicago. Therefore, a Frenchman's mishearing of unstressed devoiced final /i/ and the preceding unaspirated /k/ could also explain a "Chicagon" spelling. Algonquian grammar expects a locative suffix when speaking of a site. In fact, Algonquian hydronyms themselves sometimes carry a locative suffix. But this is not a point to belabor as it is irrelevant to the analysis of "Chicago".

    > > > 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 > > > Algonquianists.

    ****Weber is correct here. Interpreting Chi- as a shorted "Michi-" meaning 'great' simply gives us babble.

    > > > 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."

    **** Precisely, since that's what was being said.

    > > (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.

    ****Yes, this point is laid out convincingly by Swenson in his paper on the subject.

    > > > (4) However, three years before this, La > > > > Salle's "Checagou" (with a "k") had been put on Franquelin's official > > > > royal map. > > >

    **** Both orthographic c and orthographic k were interchangeable before orthographic a, o, and u in 17th- and 18th-century New World French orthography in the writing of aboriginal terms.

    > > > (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.

    ****The French often heard French [e] for Miami-Illinois [i]. I have many examples of this in my files. It occurred in the very earliest contact period and in the late 18th century. A very common mishearing.

    > > (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.

    ****The term meaning 'striped skunk' in Miami-Illinois also meant 'wild leek'.

    > > (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.

    ****Yes. Antoine-Robert Le Boullenger, a French missionary to the Illinois in the early 1700s is very clear on this point.

    > > (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).

    ****This is not in the least unexpected. Jolliet and Marquette did not record the name for the Chicago River on the return from the Mississippi voyage of 1673 as it was for them simply a portage route. Jolliet never returned to the area. Marquette later returned but was in such poor health that he could barely keep up his missionary duties on the upper Illinois River. He died soon afterwards. Allouez was not sick when he was among the Illinois but he was too preoccupied with his mission to take on onomastics. As for La Salle, Mr. Weber's statement is no basis for anything. La Salle practically lived on the St. Joseph River of Lake Michigan, having spent so much time there, but he *never* recorded an Indian name for the river. La Salle was a monolingual soldier of fortune whose onomastic legacy is unfortunately quite hit and miss. He got the native names for the Chicago River, the Maumee River, the Kankakee River, the Wabash River, the Ohio River, the Vermilion of Illinois, the White River of Indiana and the Milwaukee River of Wisconsin. He could've gotten a lot more but he was too preoccupied with his quests.

    > > 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. > >

    ****Which confirms the the Miami-Illinois origin of the place name "Chicago" as meaning "striped skunk" > "wild leek". I should add that Old Illinois was the most extensively recorded of the languages in the western Great Lakes (we have three enormous bilingual dictionaries) and, I believe, the most extensively recorded Algonquian language historically.

    > > 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.

    **** As we see above, this is not really a point.

    > > (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.

    ****As explained above, a plant found in abundance in one area along a river can be the source of its hydronym in the Miami-Illinois place naming practice.

    > > (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 > > > eyes.

    **** No, this statement is simply eurocentric. Note, for example, the name of the Illinois tribe known as the Moingwena /mooyiinkweena/ (from which the place name "Des Moines" derives). This term, which as Dave Costa has pointed out means 'shit face', was THE commonly employed name of this tribe throughout history. More than anything, the use of 'skunk' for 'wild leek' among the Miami-Illinois-speaking folks seems to indicate an aversion to eating the plant.

    > > > To summarize the main findings, so far, of this etymological > > > investigation: La Salle introduced, popularized and literally put > > > Chicago on the map;

    **** Agreed. He first found the term used among the Miami-Illinois-speaking peoples as the name for the Chicago **peninsula**, so named for the Chicago River that emptied into Lake Michigan at the peninsula.

    > > 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". > > >

    ****As we see above, this last paragraph is no longer relevant. In brief, the development of the "Chicago" spelling goes like this. La Salle sent a place name back to France in the form *Chicag8, which is the same form of the place name recorded by Pierre Potier, a Jesuit at Detroit, in the mid-1700s. (The Recollects, with whom La Salle traveled also used 8). The phonological intentions of this spelling, as in the case of many others where the 8 is the last letter, were not clear to French scribes back in Quebec and Paris, who lackadaisically transcribed the term to "Chicagou" (and all the other -e- and -k- variants cited by Weber). Just as Miami-Illinois speakers referred to the Chicago River as /$ikaakwa (siipiwi)/ "Striped Skunk, i.e., Wild Leek (River)"in 1680, late historic speakers of the language were still calling it as such in the 1800s as evidenced on Thomas Forsyth's map drawn on December 20, 1812, where he writes <Chicaqua>.

    Michael McCafferty 307 Memorial Hall Indiana University Bloomington, Indiana 47405