Shikaakwa, Shikako, Checagou, Chicago: The Origins of the Name Chicago

origins of name chicago
Photo Credit: Charles Kinsley

If you spend enough time reading up on the etymology of the word “Chicago” you’ll inevitably feel like you’re at the tail end of a bender; sadly sobering up at the bar, three-thirty in the morning, and your new best-friend, “Old Joe”, won’t stop slurring through a rant about the “Shikaakwa Bools.” Any information that might be useful is buried under phonetic approximations of defunct Native American languages and contradictions about which tribe first gave name to the stinking onions common along what we now know as the Chicago River.

Ah, the onions! Perhaps the strangest part of this whole mess is most Windy City residents “know” Chicago is a Native American word meaning “wild onion.” Well, not exactly. Most theorists seem to agree the plant in question is Allium tricoccum, or the “wild leek.” Our city’s name is said to come from the French bastardization of shikaakwa, a word for said plant from the Miami-Illinois language spoken by the Illiniwek. Still with me?

What makes this more confusing, and what seems to account for some of the discrepancies in the stories people tell, is that during the mid-18th century Chicago was inhabited primarily by the Potawatomi. It is around this time French explorers and missionaries began to move into the area. The assumption is, then, that the Potawatomi helped to originate the word. Problem is, they didn’t speak Miami-Illinois, and weren’t one of the tribes that made up the Illiniwek.

The Michigamea were however, though their Chief Chicagou has nothing to do with the name of our city. It’s likely he was just a bit smelly.

In an effort to inject more silly-looking transformations of the word into the discussion, historical linguist Michael McCafferty argues that French explorer Robert de La Salle was mistaken when he translated shikako, meaning something along the lines of “skunk place,” into the francophoned Checagou. McCafferty notes that the French “ou” ending did not exist in the Miami-Illinois language, and that a more true spelling and pronunciation would be Checagoua.

Not to be confused with shikaka.

For more… academic musing on this subject, check out Mr. McCafferty’s article, A fresh look at the place name Chicago, from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. And if you just can’t stand thinking about it anymore, just know that the name Chicago came from somewhere, we promise.

Gene Wagendorf III

About Gene Wagendorf III

Gene is a writer who has spent his entire quarter century of life as a resident of Chicago. When not exploring the city he can be found wandering flea markets and garage sales or having a cigarette between classes at Northeastern Illinois University, where he hopes to acquire a degree in the next quarter century. His favorite smells are old books and bowling alleys. His poetry (how embarrassing!) can be found in issues of Kill Poet, Ditch, Word Riot, O Sweet Flowery Roses and Vowel Movements.

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