What does the word “Chicago” actually mean?

The Windy City, Chicago, is known for deep dish pizza, a pretty rocking improv scene, and now — forever and always — the name of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s third child. But not many people know about Chicago’s true origins. The root word of “Chicago” actually comes from the Native Americans who originally lived in the area. Historians still debate which specific word it originated from, since there are few documents that highlight Chicago’s Native American history, but there are a few popular theories.

In his research, University of New Mexico history professor Richard N. Ellis referenced a Native chieftain Chicagou, who reportedly drowned in the Chicago River. Other theories point to a derivative of “shecaugo,” meaning playful waters, or “chocago” which means destitute.

However, the most accepted origin is a word from the dialect of the Algonquin language called “shikaakwa,” meaning “striped skunk” or “smelly onion” (really). Historians think this is likely the most accurate because the Miami-Illinois Native Americans typically named natural landmarks after the plants that grew in the area. It was a practical system that became a guide for gathering plants and vegetables, and many leeks and smelly onions grew in the streams around Chicago.

Colonialist René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was allegedly the first European settler to use the word “checagou” as documented in the journal of his traveling companion Henri Joutel. In 1687, Joutel wrote,

“We arrived at a place named Checagou, which, according to what we learned has taken its name from the quantity of garlic which grows in the district, in the woods.

Later, when the French colonized the area, they changed the word to “Chicago” — the city name as we know it today.

All in all, 26 U.S. states have names that originate from a Native American language and literally countless cities and towns do as well. So while everyone’s Googling the “meaning” behind Kim and Kanye’s latest name choice, let’s also take a moment to acknowledge the name’s true significance. 

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