Every Popular City Nickname, Explained
Every major American city has a stable of nicknames, but some have firmly wormed their way into the national lexicon in a way others just haven't. (You keep trying, Fire Hydrant Capital of the World.) Because you should know the backstory on The Big Easy and Frisco, here are the origins of 18 of the most enduring monikers nationwide. Read up, but maybe don't use about half of these in actual conversation.
The Big Apple
New York, NY
The term "big apple" existed long before it got attached to NYC. As the New York Public Library explains, it was used in the 1800s to describe "something regarded as the most significant of its kind; an object of desire and ambition." In 1909, Edward Martin was referring to New York as "the big apple" in comparison to other cities. By the 1920s, racetrack enthusiasts and jazz musicians alike had adopted the term. And then New York Convention and Visitors Bureau president Charles Gillett turned it into a tourism campaign. There was no turning back after that, even though the city already had a million other nicknames.
It could come from Boston's baked beans, a delicacy the Pilgrims picked up from Native Americans in the 1600s. It could also refer to the beans in the context of the Triangle Trade. (Boston exported rum to Africa to trade for slaves, the slaves were traded in Caribbean plantations for molasses, and Boston got the molasses and used it to make more rum, but also baked beans.) Or, in less-dark timelines, it could stem from a Civil War veterans convention. All the vets got small bean pots as souvenirs and supposedly when people asked where they got the trinkets, the men replied, "Beantown."
City of Brotherly Love
This one's pretty literal. The word "Philadelphia" roughly translates to "brotherly love" in Greek. ("Philos" is love and "adelphos" is brother.) William Penn named it that because he wanted his city to be a nice, friendly place where all religions were tolerated. He was a Quaker, so that was just his style.
Las Vegas, NV
Shocker: the city of casinos, strip clubs, and bachelor parties is named Sin City for its many vices. The Las Vegas Sun seems to think it's specifically because of an early 20th-century boozy brothel, but really, anything in that hedonistic desert could've started it.
Alright, this one's a little complicated. The most popular theory goes that while New York and Chicago were competing to host the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, an editor at The New York Sun (Charles A. Dana) wrote a hit piece that dismissed Chicago as "that windy city." Only there's plenty of evidence that the term existed before Dana's reference, and no one's even sure if Dana's editorial actually exists or if it's just a myth. Barry Popik, a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary, insists that Cincinnati actually coined the term, and it wasn't exactly a compliment. The way it used it, Windy City referred to both the weather and windbag politicians. Either way, another city is responsible for Chicago's most enduring nickname and its motives were not great.
The Big Easy
New Orleans, LA
In the pantheon of city nicknames, "The Big Easy" is a relatively new one. Although there was supposedly a dancehall that went by that name in the early 1900s, no one was really using the term until the '70s. And that's thanks to two people: Betty Guillaud and James Conaway. Betty was a newspaper columnist who started using the term as a sort of response to New York's "Big Apple" moniker. Jimmy was also a writer, who published a crime novel called The Big Easy in 1970. It would turn into a 1986 movie starring Dennis Quaid. And once Quaid's in the picture, that shit is law.
Half the time, ad-libbed sports broadcasts lead to a very uncomfortable experience for everyone. But the other half, they spur city nicknames. Commentator Bill Schonely spontaneously screamed, "Rip City, all right!" when Jim Barnett sunk a game-tying shot during a 1970 Portland Trail Blazers game and the rest is history.
Did you guess "because of all the cars"? It's because of all the cars. People like Henry Ford and Ransom Olds were already based in Michigan, so when they started building the auto industry, they stayed local. People started moving there for the work, which caused the city to grow, and since this was such a symbiotic relationship, people dubbed Detroit, "Motor City." Eventually they started calling it, "Motown," too, for Berry Gordy.
San Francisco, CA
We've previously gone over SF's most well-known (and arguably most hated) nickname in excruciating detail, but to recap: it was first dropped as an abbreviation in a judgey 1849 letter written by a New Englander, then it started popping up in books and Irving Berlin songs and this amazing-looking film, and eventually even the Hells Angels were using it. And don't you dare correct those guys.
Sadly, this doesn't reference a long-forgotten wizard founder. Miami is called the Magic City because it became a city seemingly overnight. Here's what happened: a wealthy widow purchased a citrus plantation and moved there before it was much of anything. She convinced her rich and powerful friends to extend the railroad down there, build streets and power systems, and add a resort. By 1896, the city was incorporated, and pretty soon, people were moving there (and visiting) in droves. Good work, Julia Tuttle.
City of Angels
Los Angeles, CA
We really hope your Spanish comprehension is basic enough to figure this one out.
Seattle got its Frank L. Baum-esque name from a 1982 contest held by the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The group challenged the public to come up with the best nickname for the city, and Emerald City won out. It's easy to see why, considering the fawning entry described Seattle as, "the jewel of the Northwest, the queen of the Evergreen State, the many-faceted city of space, elegance, magic and beauty."
You're probably wondering how a place once dubbed "Bodymore, Murderland" got to be nicknamed Charm City. Simple: an ad campaign! In 1975, Mayor William Donald Schaefer called on some of the area's top marketing minds to help Baltimore's poor public image. One of them, Bill Evans, wrote the line, "Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight." The team zeroed in on Charm City, and produced a series of ads which even featured charm bracelets at the bottom. That's how it all began, so quit giving H.L. Mencken the credit.
The Big D
Big D (get out all your snickering now) doesn't seem to refer to anything other than the city's size. But it goes back to at least the 1930s, when it figured into the Bonnie and Clyde saga. The nickname also got its own number in the musical The Most Happy Fella, so take that, Gary, Indiana.
Mile High City
You know how everyone warns you about the altitude change when you first visit Denver? They're not kidding around: it's exactly one-mile high. Hence, the Mile High City.
While it's not quite as popular as it used to be, Houston's official nickname since 1967 has been Space City. It makes sense, seeing as the Johnson Space Center is there, and it's such an integral part of the city that it inspired the baseball team's name. The space thing also spurred this former underground newspaper above, which looks like it was a ton of fun. Just look at the guy with a lampshade on his head!
Well, it can get awfully muggy in Georgia. And the Allman Brothers Band helped popularize the name with the 1971 song "Hot 'Lanta."
If you know anything about Pittsburgh, you know it's an industrial city with a long history of steel production. This goes back to the late 1800s, when Andrew Carnegie brought his Carnegie Steel Company (later swallowed up by the US Steel Corporation) to the city. The Scotsman's steel mills employed lots of locals, so it only made sense to make the alloy part of the place's nickname. And it does sound a lot more badass than "Coal City."