Chicago Etymology Revisited

carljweber carljweber at MSN.COM
Mon Dec 17 16:42:53 UTC 2001

Chicago Etymology Revisited
Carl Jeffrey Weber 

A few days ago I posted this to the Linguist list. Now I see the American Dialectic Society has the more specific readership. 

In August of 2000 I ended my Chicago etymology comments with, "Not today, not next week, but sometime in the future I intend to refine and again summarize my data."

Although I can not, still, with confidence say what the etymology of the word is, there are, nevertheless, as a result of this continuing investigation, various new and noteworthy linguistic, cartographic, and historical findings.

In addition to input by more than a dozen Algonquianists and other linguists, there's been an extensive investigation of ALL the available relevant narratives and maps before 1700. These have been chronologically ordered, with allowance made for questionable examples, and examined in their historical settings.

The two standing etymologies of Chicago, by Virgil J. Vogel (1958) and John F. Swenson (1991), each propose their own archetypical forms, "Chicagon" and "Chicagoua," and claim the word is regional, i.e., Miami/Illinois. 

My investigations have found new "earliest attestations" in a text (1680, a La Salle report) and on a map (1684, Franquelin's "La Louisiane," inspired by La Salle). A scan of the map, as a result of this investigation, has been recently acquired by the Newberry Library from the Harvard Library, where it had been tracked. The map shows La Salle's grand design for the vast Louisiana. The plan was intended for, and presented to, Louis XIV, who granted La Salle's plan. 

The data show the original form of the word was "Checagou" (on a few maps, "Chekagou"). With only one exception, this form is substantiated by the evidence. (The exception, Henri Joutel, has the famous "onions" quote, 1687, to which the foundation of the skunk/onion theory adverts -- and as will be suggested below, seems to have been a punning linguistic hoax!) There is a map from 1685 (Minet's) that Vogel cites as the earliest use of the word on a map (Checago), but this is a defective tracing, and impossible for simple reasons not here related. Of special note, the original written form I posit has "Che-" and NOT "Chi-"; also note, there is no "-a" on the end. 

By way of this etymological investigation, the various data indicate that La Salle introduced, popularized, and literally put Chicago on the map. The uses of this form, La Salle's "Checagou" (with the one mentioned legitimate exception), are found exclusively before 1697 -- the first seventeen years of the word's attested use. The uses are ALL traceable to La Salle's influence. Swenson's conclusion that "Chicagoua" was original, is not corroborated by the evidence. The "-a" at the end of the word was an addition that appeared nearly two decades AFTER La Salle's first use, and subsequent use by others. The terminal "-a" was not, as Swenson suggests, pre-existing and "conventionally" dropped. 

Vogel's "Chicagon" represents one of the more entertaining threads of Chicago etymology. There is an enduring and pervasive idea that in Chicago's etymological provenance there is somewhere to be found an "at the" nasal locative morpheme that at some point fell off the end of the word. Many still have an attachment to this idea. However, this thread is to be traced back to a typographical error (!) found in the 1714 English translation of Henri Joutel's narrative. (This is the short version, Joutel's long version was made available by Pierre Margry in 1876-86. Vogel was not aware of the long version when he wrote in 1958, and he executed some extreme blunders.) Joutel's 1714 "Chicagon" should have been "Chicagou," as in Margry. 

But the prize for historical Chicago etymology befuddlement should be bestowed on Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. He was popularly regarded in the 19th century as the foremost scholar of all things Indian. In the many editions of his immensely influential work, he parsed "Chicago" as "great+porcupine+place of." Joutel's 1714 locative typo ("-on") was passed on by Schoolcraft to Vogel. However, there WAS NO locative morpheme. In addition, Schoolcraft disseminated the "great" thread found in Chicago etymology, a thread that was quite energetic until the 1930s (the "great" is also found in Louis Hennepin, 1697, but will not be elaborated here). The "Chi-" of Chicoutimi IS supported by various kinds of evidence to mean "great". The Chicoutimi River, in Canada, is on 18th Century maps translated as "great discharge". The "Chi-" of Chicago, meaning "great," however, is currently universally rejected by Algonquianists.

DATA: (1) There IS a proto-Algonquian word for "skunk," that in various derived languages, three hundred years ago, no doubt sounded  very much like La Salle's "Checagou." (2) In fact, La Salle's spelling is acceptable for "skunk" in Fox/Sauk/Kickapoo and in Chaouanon (Shawnee) -- but these were NOT languages native to the area. (3) In 1687 is found the principal evidence for the current onion theory -- the Indians told Joutel that the place got its name ("Chicagou") from the onions that grew abundantly in the region. (4) However, three years before this, La Salle's "Checagou" (with a "k") had been put on Franquelin's official royal map. (5) Joutel's "Chi-" spelling (I repeat myself) is the only exception to La Salle's "Che-," found in the first seventeen years of the word's history. (6) The Indians did not tell Joutel that the word in Miami/Illinois was transparently the same word as "skunk" -- in fact it wasn't until the English narrative of John Tanner, in the 1830s, that the "skunk" etymology comes up at all. (7) In the Miami/Illinois language there WAS a word, "Chicagoua," that meant "skunk" and also referred to the Alium tricoccum, a sometimes foul smelling alium, which John Kirkland identified over a century ago as the onion (garlic/leek) of Joutel -- the identification confirmed and put on extensively footnoted foundations by Swenson. (8) La Salle opened up the Illinois territory in 1680 -- the same year Checagou was first written. This is no coincidence. Vogel and Swenson's presentations to the contrary, there is NO evidence for the word's use before 1680, even though several maps and narratives, before La Salle, had the opportunity to present it (Jolliet, Marquette, Allouez). From this early period, there is no evidence that any language but Miami/Illinois employed the "skunk" word as a stand-alone absolute for a plant. In a compound, and found only much later, the word was used adjectively, but this is not surprising, as a handy word for "foul smelling". It seems to have referred to the Sympocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage), not the Alium tricoccum. This use, and Leonard Bloomfield's data, are removed in time sufficiently that they are quite feeble as etymological support.  

Three reasons that Chicago was NOT named after the onions (that themselves were named with the same Miami/Illinois word as "skunk") are: (1) The first two decades of the many examples in texts and on maps show a spelling (with "Che-" and with no terminal "-a") that was NOT a regional (Miami/Illinois) word. (2) The texts and maps are clear that the word had an application to the corridor from the southwest corner of Lake Michigan to the Illinois River -- more than fifty miles. This has not previously been clarified. It is not compelling that the entire distance should have been named after a small onion area up near Lake Michigan. (3) That the onions were associated with the skunk-word in the Miami/Illinois language is seen in Le Boulanger's (c. 1720) French -- Miami/Illinois Dictionary. Although this is occasionally cited, what has not been cited, amazingly, is that next to the Chicago word, as it indicates our particular alium, is written quite clearly the word "abusive". Given the field of repulsive sensory experience conveyed by "skunk," and given the fact that other Indian words also appear next to the onion (garlic/leek) entry as other names for it, it is, accordingly, not difficult to conclude that Le Boulanger's "abusive" stood in the same relation to it as in our modern English dictionaries the words "slang," "offensive," or "vulgar" might appear next to a particular entry. It was maledicta -- here, perhaps a humorous verbal fraud -- a punning homonym on La Salle's word -- a linguistic hoax on the white eyes.  

To summarize the main findings, so far, of this etymological investigation: La Salle introduced, popularized and literally put Chicago on the map; earlier etymological attestations in a text (1680) and on a map (1684) have been identified; the 1714 English translation of Joutel initiated the typographical nasal locative error; Schoolcraft is responsible for the wide dissemination of it, plus he spread the idea that "Chi-," in this case, was equivalent to "great"; the area to which the word applied seems to have been too extensive to have been named for the onions in one small part of it; and considering Le Boulanger's dictionary, what the Indians told Joutel in 1687 may well have been punning maledicta on La Salle's "Checagou".

Questions and comments welcome.To be continued.


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