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How 8 Big Cities Got Their Nicknames

You’re no doubt familiar with nicknames like the Big Apple and the City of Light, but do you know how cities like New York and Paris earned their famous sobriquets? The backstories for some of these monikers are straightforward — as in, literal-translation-of-Greek straightforward — while others involve everything from horse racing to molasses. Here’s how eight international cities got their nicknames.

New York City — The Big Apple

Skyline of New York city's Manhattan.
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The first time New York City was referred to as the Big Apple was in 1909, when Edward S. Martin wrote in his book The Wayfarer in New York that those in Kansas are “apt to see in New York a greedy city … it inclines to think that the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap.” This doesn’t seem to have been intended as a nickname, however, especially since the name in question wasn’t capitalized. Thus, the credit for popularizing the phrase goes to a horse-racing column published by the New York Morning Telegraph.

“The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen,” John J. Fitz Gerald wrote in a 1924 article titled “Around the Big Apple.” “There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.” Fitz Gerald had previously used the expression as a way of describing a coveted prize, having heard two stable workers refer to the racetracks of New York City that way.

In the 1930s, the nickname was used in the Harlem jazz scene as the name of two nightclubs and a song and dance routine. By the '70s, the city's convention and visitors bureau had commissioned an ad campaign centered around the nickname — complete with NYC's famous skyline atop a bright red apple.

Paris — City of Light

The Eiffel Tower at dusk.
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This one isn't just literal. Paris was indeed among the first major cities in Europe to use gas lights on its major streets and landmarks, dating back to the early 19th century, but its evocative nom de guerre is more metaphorical than you might expect. France’s capital was also an unofficial capital of the Age of Enlightenment, which in France is considered to have begun in 1715 and ended in 1789 — a period bookended by the death of Louis XIV (better known as Louis the Great or the Sun King) and the beginning of the French Revolution, respectively.

Also known as the Age of Reason, this movement was hardly limited to Paris. Still, it was there that philosophers like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau espoused many of their most influential ideas; where the Montgolfier Brothers launched the first manned flight of a hot-air balloon; and where the Peace of Paris treaties that ended the American Revolutionary War were signed in 1783, among myriad other historic achievements. Next time you swoon over an image of the city lit up at night, keep in mind that light bulbs also represent ideas and intentions.

Chicago — The Windy City

Street busy with cars in Chicago.
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Believe it or not, this one has nothing to do with weather; Chicago isn’t even especially windy when compared to other major cities, at least not in the literal sense. Rather, the moniker comes from the once-common perception that residents of Chicago in general and its politicians in particular were “windbags” who were "full of hot air" — which is to say, given to making grandiose claims that weren’t altogether truthful.

The most common origin story for the nickname is a column written by New York Sun editor Charles Dana in 1890, when the two cities were competing to host the World’s Fair three years later. In it, he advised anyone reading to pay little mind to the "nonsensical claims of that windy city." There’s just one problem with this theory, widely accepted though it is: There’s no evidence that such a column was ever written. Even if it did exist, Chicago had been known as the Windy City since at least the 1870s.

New Orleans — The Big Easy

Old Colonial Building French Quarter Dumaine street New Orleans.
Credit: bpperry/ iStock

If you were lucky enough to spend time in New Orleans circa the early 1900s, you may have found yourself at a dance hall called the Big Easy. And while that nickname for everyone’s favorite Creole-inflected city didn’t take off until the 1960s, when Betty Guillaud, a gossip columnist at the Times-Picayune, used it to highlight the differences between laid-back NOLA and bustling NYC, the connection to music is indisputable.

Jazz was born in the city’s Black communities, and the rich musical legacy of New Orleans goes far beyond that genre. Some attribute the Big Easy nickname to the comparative ease with which aspiring musicians could make both a living and names for themselves in N’Awlins; whatever the case, the sobriquet was well known enough by 1970 for James Conaway to name his crime novel set in New Orleans after it.

As with many nicknames, it’s likely that each of these holds some responsibility. That’s especially fitting for a melting pot of a city like New Orleans, where variety isn’t just the spice of life — it’s a way of life.

Philadelphia — The City of Brotherly Love

Iconic Love Park statue in Philadelphia.
Credit: Zack Frank/ Shutterstock

Anyone who’s studied ancient Greek will know this one: Philadelphia literally means "brotherly love" (phílos adelphós) in that language of yore. It was named by William Penn, who founded the Pennsylvania colony in 1682 and was an early member of the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers; his experience with religious persecution inclined him to make both the colony and the city a place where people were free to worship as they chose.

In addition to being noble in and of itself, this also had a highly positive effect on Philadelphia. Penn’s goodwill improved relations with Tammany, the chief of the Lenape peoples, and helped transform Philadelphia into what was then the largest and most important city in America.

Rome — The Eternal City

Airel view of Rome taken from the top of the Vatican.
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The Roman Empire didn’t actually last forever, but that didn’t stop poets and other scholars from predicting that it would. Tibullus is widely credited as being the first to refer to his fair city as “Urbs Aeterna,” which in Latin means "Eternal City"; another poet, Virgil, later went on to use the line imperium sine fine: "empire without end."

The exact line Tibullus used in his 1st century B.C.E. poem “Elegies” was “Romulus aeternae nondum formaverat urbis moenia, consorti non habitanda Remo,” which translates to “not yet had Romulus drawn up the Eternal City’s walls, where Remus as co-ruler was fated not to live.” The empire itself might not have been eternal, but Rome is as magnificent as ever thousands of years later.

Mumbai — City of Dreams

The Gateway of India and boats as seen from the Mumbai Harbour in Mumbai, India
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There’s no one reason Mumbai is known as Mayanagri, or "City of Dreams," but rather several. Altogether, they represent something like India’s version of the American Dream: The country’s second-largest metropolis (after Delhi) is also its wealthiest, as the economic hub is home to Bollywood and countless other industries where up-and-comers have the chance to make it big. This includes immigrants, who flock to Mumbai (which was called Bombay until 1995) from nearby countries in search of a better life.

Boston — Beantown

George Washington Monument at Public Garden in Boston.
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Though it's also known as the Cradle of Liberty and even the Hub of the Universe by some, no nickname has stuck to Boston quite like Beantown. On one level, the origin is as simple as you'd expect: Boston baked beans are a regional dish differentiated by the use of molasses for a bit of sweetness alongside the salt pork or bacon flavoring. There’s also more history to it than you might expect, as the tradition dates back to the 17th century and involves both Native Americans (who made baked beans without the molasses) and the slave trade (which is how the area got much of its molasses in the first place).

For quite a long time — even through today, to an extent — Beantown was used more by sailors and other visitors than it was by actual Bostonians. Some nicknames aren’t quite as beloved by locals as they are by the rest of us.