Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

How Illinois places were named

English professor Edward Callary has
nearly 3,000 answers in new book

January 21, 2009

by Tom Parisi

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 NIU 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 10 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.”