You’ve been throwing around the phrases Windy City, Sin City, and Big Easy for years. You even have a souvenir t-shirt with the words Big Apple printed in big block letters. Many city monikers have become part of the national vocabulary, but how much do you really know about their origins? Read on to find out the interesting backstories behind 10 major U.S. city nicknames. (And just in case you’re wondering, no, the Windy City was not named for its frigid breezes).
Most visitors to New York City make it a point to try the city’s famous pizza, bagels, and hot dogs. Apples, however, probably aren’t factored in on the food tour. So, why is the city nicknamed after a fruit? According to the New York Public Library, the term was used to describe “something regarded as the most significant of its kids; an object of desire and ambition” in the 1800s. And while there’s a bit of debate of the exact origin — or how it gained popularity — the vast majority of folks note that the moniker can be traced back to the racetracks. While in New Orleans in the 1920s, a newspaper reporter by the name of John Fitz Gerald overheard some stablehands say they were going to the “big apple,” referring to New York City. He later used the catchphrase in one of his columns, and in 1924, he wrote “The Big Apple, the dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.” The term was picked up and spread around by sports columnists and musicians. In the 1970s, the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau president Charles Gillett used the term in a tourism campaign, popularizing it even further.
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Chicago’s must be called the Windy City because of the icy breezes that blow off Lake Michigan, right? While that is a literal interpretation, others think the nickname was coined elsewhere (its exact origins are unclear). One popular theory is that the term was created to call out Chicago’s locals and politicians, who were referred to as “full of hot air.” Etymologist Barry Popik has uncovered evidence that reveals the term was used as both a reference to Chicago’s weather and the city’s politicians. Newspapers dating back to the 1870s used the phrase, but the mystery still remains today.
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This one’s pretty straightforward. The name Philadelphia combines the Greek words for love (phileo) and brother (adelphos). And William Penn, the city’s founder, is the one to thank for coming up with that. According to the Free Library of Philadelphia, Penn, who was a Quaker, envisioned a city of religious tolerance. In addition to being a strong believer in religious freedom, he also wished to live at peace with the Native Americans, and paid them justly for the rights to the city’s land.
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It should come as no surprise that Las Vegas, a destination synonymous with gambling, boozing, and other vices, has been dubbed Sin City. But did you know that Las Vegas, named by the Spanish, means “meadows”? So, how did a city with such a tranquil translation wind up with a nickname that signals debauchery? According to History.com, although Nevada outlawed gambling in 1910, the activity lived on in speakeasies and illicit casinos. Gambling was legalized in 1931, but organized crime already had roots in the city. A “Las Vegas Sun” article pegs Block 16 as the place where the moniker “Sin City” originated, as it offered prostitution and brothels in the early 1900s.
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There was reportedly a jazz club called the Big Easy back in the 1900s, but the moniker didn’t truly catch on until the 1970s — first, when a newspaper columnist coined the term while comparing the city to the Big Apple, and later when James Conaway published a crime novel with the same name. A 1986 movie starring Dennis Quaid also eventually took the name, further engraining it in mainstream chatter.
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Boston goes by many nicknames — The Cradle of Liberty, The Athens of America, and The Hub of the Universe, to name a few. Perhaps the most colloquially used label, however, is Beantown. The name refers to a popular regional dish of Boston baked beans, baked in molasses for hours. But its origins aren’t as innocent as it may seem. Boston was part of the Triangular Trade, in which it exported rum to Africa to trade for slaves. The slaves were traded in the Caribbean for molasses, and Boston received the molasses and used it to make more rum — plus the aforementioned baked beans. Traders commonly called it Beantown back then, and today, it’s tourists who use it widely.
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Folks who have visited Seattle (and even those who haven’t) are aware of its reputation for great coffee and plentiful downpours. Given the latter, it’s not surprising that the city is also home to numerous parks, including Green Lake Park, Discovery Park, and the Washington Park Arboretum. It’s due to this immense greenery that the jewel of the Northwest (get it?) has earned its nickname as Emerald City.
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First-time visitors to Denver might be cautioned about its high altitude. The city boasts a 5,280-foot (or one-mile high) elevation point, which lends itself to its nickname. At Coors Field, a row of purple seats stands out against the sea of green ones to mark the mile-high line.
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Miami’s moniker, Magic City, has less to do with abracadabra sorcery and more to do with the fact that it became a city nearly overnight. A wealthy widow by the name of Julia Tuttle purchased a citrus plantation in addition to a plot she inherited and moved to the area. Soon, she convinced her powerful pals (like Henry Flagler) to extend the railroad down there, build roads, and even throw in a resort. And by 1896, the city became incorporated. It didn’t take long after that for Miami to become a tourist attraction — and place for people to settle down.
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The backstory behind this is short and sweet: “The angels” is the literal Spanish translation of Los Angeles.
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