Nicknames are good for tavern regulars and old-time gangsters. For anyone and anything else they can be downright cringeworthy. Alas, Chicago is an eminently nickname-able city. Maybe it’s because the world associates Chicago with taverns and old-time gangsters, or maybe it’s just our lousy luck that city nicknames accumulate like dibs chairs in January. Sure, they add color to the landscape of our midwestern vernacular, but for every cool Chicago epithet there are at least two or three awkward ones: for every Scarface, a Willie Potatoes.
But which nickname is the worst? Is it even worth it to hate the old cliches like the Windy City and the City of Big Shoulders? For all their corniness, they come with mini history lessons, about politics or literature. In a tiny, pithy way, they express truths about Chicago—or, in the case of the Second City and Hog Butcher for the World, former truths.
“Chi-town,” on the other hand, starts with an untruth—the first syllable of the word Chicago does not rhyme with “shy”—stumbles over a questionable hyphen (some people opt to leave it out and just capitalize the T in the middle of word, which is just weird), and ends with a vague description: town. In terms of sheer annoyance, though, Chi-town is the cilantro of nicknames: how objectionable it is depends on who’s saying it. Chi-town can be used with a sort of tossed-off coolness, but it can also be a hideous fist pump of a phrase. (Still, any usage of the term is preferable over “Chi-raq,” which is an insult to both Chicagoans and Iraqis, thank you very much, Spike Lee.) In any case, Chi-town is there for all of us—those who love to hate it, and those who . . . uh, love to avoid saying “Chicago” for some reason.
Other city nicknames are so lame that they barely even qualify as nicknames. The deeply bland Chicagoland is really a gross generalization rather than a sobriquet; the Third Coast amounts to not much more than a petulant protest: “But we’re a coast too—sort of!” Then there are the small-scale offenders in the Chicago nickname universe, such as the real-estate-developer-created abbreviations like MiCa (for Milwaukee and California) and SoNo (for south of North Avenue). Why ape the New York convention of piecing bits of street names and directionals into case-sensitive monstrosities? We’re a city of neighborhoods—places with real names.
Well, except for the Magnificent Mile, which just might be the most obnoxious of all Chicago-related nicknames—that cheesy superlative tourists use when they talk about shopping at and around Water Tower Place. “North Michigan Avenue” takes about the same amount of effort to say and completely avoids all the complications of the nickname, which include but are not limited to (1) the awkwardness of hearing tourists ask CTA drivers if the bus running along Michigan Avenue is going to the Magnificent Mile; (2) having to hear other out-of-towners mistakenly call it the Miracle Mile; (3) the even more repellent nick-nickname Mag Mile.
It seems like it would be the easiest thing in the world to just stop saying “Magnificent Mile” or “Chi-beria” or whatever, but don’t expect anything to change. Like tavern regulars, nicknames tend to stick around. v