I love city nicknames. Like a connoisseur of fine wines, I love to discover and savor new ones. Which ones age well? What groan-inducing idea did people think would turn the city around in the 70s?

In this post, and with an assist from social media, I wanted to share my anthropological work so far on city nicknames. Without further ado, it is my distinct pleasure to present to you the Thickly Settled Encyclopedia of Major Nickname Categories.

Category 1: Cultural Shorthand: To the point and loving, it’s the type of thing you say when you have to explain to your friends why your city sponsors a naked bike ride. “Well, that’s just Portlandia for you,” you say, with a smile and shake of the head. Cultural osmosis sometimes bestows a nickname for no real reason (Hotlanta) or to compare yours to another city (NashVegas). Sometimes it’s just part of the DNA: Reno is and always will be the Biggest Little City in the World. Often the name doesn’t reflect much about the actual city but is just a colloquial way to say the name; these range from the highly local – Woo-town  for Worcester, MA – to the universal, like Philly.

Category 2: Status Symbol: Probably the best kind of nickname to have. It reflects a cultural or historical value to the community that is truly unique. Detroit has a handful of great ones: Motor City, with its upbeat, industrious feeling, eventually morphed into Motown, the city most identified with American music. Whether it’s a (mis)translation of the name like the City of Angels (LA) or The City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia) or a just-so story about the place’s history – e.g. Atlanta’s role as The City Too Busy to Hate – a good Status Symbol gets the warm fuzzies going.

Category 3: Serves a Practical Purpose: Self-explanatory. Which side of the line am I on – KCK or KCMO (Kansas City, Kansas or Missouri)? Indy (Indianapolis) and OKC (Oklahoma City) save you from struggling with a 6 syllable name every time you want to reference the place.

Category 4: Stock: These nicknames are a dime a dozen. Sometimes it’s an area code (perhaps Ludacris’s most enduring cultural contribution) or an airport abbreviation (PDX, DFW). Believe it or not, your city’s cutesy abbreviation (the ‘Burgh (any place ending in -burgh), the ‘Ville (any place ending in -ville), B-Town (my town starts with B!), etc, is not all that original. If your best nickname fits in this category, you can do better.

Category 5: The Epithet: The stock-in-trade of your hilarious uncle/rival sports team supporters. I think your city is boring (Indianoplace), dangerous (Spokanistan/SpokomptonBodymore (Baltimore), Chiraq (Chicago), Fayettenam (Fayetteville, NC), dirty (Filthadelphia), or just generally disagreeable (Mistake on the Lake (Cleveland), Lost Wages (Las Vegas).

  • The Reclaimed Epithet: Sweet revenge. Once your name was a punchline, but through willpower or sheer obliviousness the name has lost its sting. Chicago, capital of Midwestern self-deprecation, has successfully reclaimed a number of old jabs that no longer carry negative connotations: Windy City (maybe because of the weather, maybe the bloviating politicians) and Second City (now Third?) make the list at least, and probably also The City of Big Shoulders if I knew what that meant. Naptown (Indianapolis) now trades on its formerly sleepy reputation. Boston is known as the Hub of the Universe, which was probably supposed to be an insult, but Bostonians liked the sound of it and applied it themselves. Referring to NYC as Gotham has an origin story worthy of Batman, and at one point was probably an epithet. Bellingham, WA is hilariously the City of Subdued Excitement but I can’t imagine anyone has ever actually taken offense at that. I don’t think Bellingham is physically capable of taking offense.

Category 6: Hopelessly Fanciful or Dorky: These can be great, but usually not for the reason they were intended.

  • The Industrial Capital: A particular fascination of the Rust Belt. The city attempts to cling to their one-time domination of a niche industry, which usually comes off as sadly desperate. At BEST, you’re an Akron (the Rubber Capital) or Toledo (Glass City). I remember driving past Albany, OR, the “Grass Seed Capital of the World.” Sound like a riotous good time. Fun fact: the original title of the Beastie Boys song was “no sleep ’til Insurance City (Hartford)” but they couldn’t think of any good rhymes for Connecticut.
  • Nobody From Here Calls it That: “So, how’s life in Frisco so far?” “It’s fine, thanks mom.” Perhaps Beantown was cool to say at some point in the past, but I’ve never heard anyone in Massachusetts use it non-ironically. When someone references The Big Apple, the local eye rolling is almost audible. If these are part of your regular vocabulary, you’re probably also the person who tells actual Australians to “put another shrimp on the barbie.
  • Blank of the Blank: a true wildcard. Your standard BotB will improbably compare a quaint town with a European cultural capitol. Athens might dispute that Nashville is the Athens of the South or Columbus, IN is the Athens of Indiana. Sometimes it can be hard to tell what is a joke: as everyone knows, Chicago is the Miami of Canada, but what must have started out as a joke spun out of control when Worcester, MA declared itself the “Paris of the 80’s,” leaving unclear how one becomes a place of a time. Having impossibly high aspirations is probably better than the alternative, though. Pity poor Des Moines, the “Hartford of the West” according to Wikipedia. Me, I call it the Insurance City of the Plains. That one’s on me, Des Moines.

2 thoughts on “On Nicknames

  1. Very interesting post! This is a good read.

    I noticed a slight typo in the sentence “city most identified with American music.” You typed Detroit but I think you meant Nashville.


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