Northern Illinois University

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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

January 12, 2009

How Illinois places got their names

NIU English professor has nearly 3,000 answers in new book

DeKalb, Ill. — Legend has it that “The Windy City” moniker dates to the late 19th century, when New York and Chicago were vying for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. A writer for the New York Sun reportedly took Chicago’s blustery politicians to task for their boasts, hence “The Windy City.”

Edward Callary

As is often the case, however, legend has it wrong, according to Northern Illinois University English Professor Edward Callary, who notes that experts have proven that “The Windy City” sobriquet was popularized decades earlier.

“The blustery politicians’ source of ‘Windy City’ has been repeated so many times that it has taken on a life of its own,” Callary says. “It makes for a good story, but it’s just not true.”

Callary, an expert on onomastics, or name studies, has penned a new book shedding light on the names that dot the Land of Lincoln. “Place Names of Illinois” (University of Illinois Press) unearths the origins of the names and occasional nicknames of nearly 3,000 Illinois communities and places – from Chicago to Carbondale, the latter named for its rich deposits of coal. (See selected entries.)

Much can be learned from a name.

“Place names are the archives in which the history and culture of a people are stored,” Callary says.

“Our history, culture, beliefs, ambitions and dreams are encapsulated in the names we give our communities,” he adds. “The lives of Native Americans and national and local leaders, as well as the lives of less-well-known people, are compressed into Illinois place names.”

The NIU English professor conducted five years of research for “Place Names of Illinois,” visiting local libraries and genealogical and historical societies, as well as all of the state’s regional history centers.

Callary writes in the book introduction that it is customary to think of place names as layers on the land, “with each layer attesting to the presence of a particular group of people or the existence of a particular naming practice.”

Prior to the 20th century, names of Illinois places usually could be traced to five distinct layers:

  • Names used by Native Americans.
  • Names used by early French explorers and settlers.
  • Names transferred from Europe or from eastern states, a practice that flourished in the middle 19th century.
  • Patriotic names given in commemoration of political and military leaders or names from history.
  • Self-memorializing names given by people who settled in Illinois when it was the American West.

Native American names represent the deepest layer of Illinois name origins—and also the thinnest because of a lack of written materials.

“If by Native American names we mean names from a Native American language that were probably used by Native Americans for the purposes of geographic reference, only a handful are found on modern maps,” Callary writes.

“These would include Chicago, Kankakee, Kishwaukee, Nippersink, Pecatonica, and Sinnissippi; probably Shokokon, Somonauk, and Maquon; and possibly others. Most of what we tend to think of as ‘Indian names'….were applied by Europeans, in many cases decades after Native American occupation had ended.”

Callary notes that Germans, in particular, brought place names with them. “There have been at least ten Hanovers in Illinois, nine Berlins, nine Hamburgs and nine Bremens,” he writes.

The most common name in Illinois is Union, which typically traces its origins to the federal union of states. There have been more than 50 post offices, communities, townships or precincts with that name.

In addition to name origins, Callary's new book also examines different pronunciations for Illinois places. “The major surprises for me have been in the area of local pronunciation, which in a number of instances is different from what the spelling and non-local use would suggest,” he says.

For example, local pronunciations include BER-luhn for Berlin, SAN JOZ for San Jose and JO DAYVIS for Jo Daviess. Then there’s the Joliet debate. Is the town’s name properly pronounced JOE-lee-et or JAH-lee-et?

You'll have to read to the book to find out.

Callary is the editor of several books on naming, including “Place Names in the Midwestern United States” and “Surnames, Nicknames, Placenames and Epithets in America: Essays in the Theory of Names.” He is also editor emeritus of “Names: A Journal of Onomastics.”

Selected abbreviated entries from ‘Place Names of Illinois’

Place Names of Illinois

Chicago – At least 13 meanings have been proposed for the word Chicago, from “something great” to “cracked corn makers.” It was recorded by LaSalle in 1680 as Checagou, and he later applied the name to the Des Plaines River, which was called the Chicago River into the 1790s. The name for our nation’s third largest city actually derives from “sikaakwa,” a Miami-Illinois word for striped skunk. The word was also homophonous with the word for the ramp or wild leek, thus the meaning “onion field.” Carl Sandburg wove both meanings into his poem, “The Windy City”: “Early the red men gave a name to the river,/ the place of the skunk / the river of the wild onion smell / Shee-caw-go.”

Elgin – Named by one of its first settlers, James T. Gifford, for the Scots hymn, “Elgin.” Gifford had been a great admirer of the tune.

Aurora – When the post office was established in 1837, there was a good deal of sentiment for naming the town Waubonsee after the Potawatomi leader whose main village was nearby. But Elias Terry, a cousin of settlers Samuel and Joseph McCarty, proposed Aurora for his former home in Cayuga County, N.Y., itself named from Latin for “morning” or “dawn.” That is coincidentally similar in meaning to Waubonsee, reported to mean daybreak or morning light.

Blue Island – The “island” was actually a swampy ridge of higher ground at the foot of Lake Michigan. The name reportedly was chosen for the blue wildflowers that grew along the ridge and from the purple haze that hung over the area in the early mornings and late evenings.

Joliet – Several sources of the name have been proposed, including that it was taken from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to complement the nearby community of Romeo (now Romeoville). But the name is indirectly linked to Louis Jolliet, who reportedly camped nearby in 1673. A map attributed to Jolliet identified a ridge along the Des Plaines River as “Mont Joliet.” (The ridge was leveled by quarrying in the 1800s.) Through popular etymology, the spelling became Juliet. By the early 19th century, both spellings “Juliet” and “Joliet” are found, often with the former referring to the general area and the latter to the ridge. The discrepancy was apparently pointed out in 1842 by President Martin Van Buren, prompting a petition to change the name to Joliet.

Naperville – The Naper brothers, John and Joseph, left Ohio in the summer of 1831 and established a trading post and sawmill at what became known as the Naper Settlement. Joseph Naper formally laid out the community of Naperville in 1842.

Mokena – The name is most likely an adaptation of Algonquian “makina” for turtle. It is the only town named Mokena in the United States.

Cherry Valley – The Winnebago County village was named for Cherry Valley, New York. For unknown reasons, the community in its early years had been known as Grabtown or Graball.

Wauconda – Founded on Bangs Lake in the 1840s by Justus Bangs. Wauconda was the name of an Indian character in a popular novel of the day.

Zion – Named for Mount Zion, a hill in the eastern part of Jerusalem, by John Alexander Dowie in 1901. Dowie was a Scottish fundamentalist preacher and faith healer, and Zion was founded as a community where church law prevailed. There were to be “no breweries or saloons, gambling halls, houses of ill fame, hog raising, tobacco shops, hospitals (or) theaters.” Original street names maintained the biblical theme and included Lebanon Avenue, Shiloh Boulevard and Horeb Avenue.

Vinegar Hill Township – Created as Mann Township in 1852. The name was changed five years later for Vinegar Hill, County Wexford, in southeast Ireland. Local stories claim that a group of miners “while in a state of spiritual hallucination” christened an Indian mound by pouring whiskey over it and declaring, “Henceforth and forever, this place shall be called Vinegar Hill.”

Springfield – Established as the temporary seat of Sangamon County in 1821 on land along Spring Creek, hence the name. The community was formally laid out as Calhoun two years later, but the name reverted to Springfield in 1825 when it became the permanent county seat. Because there were many U.S. towns that already went by Springfield, there was a good deal of sentiment to change the name—proposals included Sangamo, Illini and Illinopolis. Indeed, Springfield is a popular place name in the United States; 32 states have at least one Springfield, and many have several. Virginia alone has 11.

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