#626: Chicag8 and My Delicious Ramps

April 27th, 2016

It was our first time making risotto, and my first experience frying up a skillet of chicagos.

It’s ramp season in the Midwest, when the little onion-garlic goodies known as the ramp (Allium tricoccum) spring up for a few short weeks in forest preserves, gourmet restaurants and my girlfriend’s mom’s backyard.

It’s also the plant that named a city.

It starts with the word Chicag8.

The 8 in “Chicag8” isn’t the number 8. It’s how French folks in the 1600s mashed an O and U together, like how sometimes you’ll see Aesop’s Fables written as Æsop.

Except if you were a Jesuit priest, where the letter 8 meant OUA.

If I’m understanding all the linguistics, if a word in French ends in OU, it’s pronounced one way, but if the OU has letters after it, it sounds like a W.

Oui?

Please, French speakers, correct me if I’m wrong.

So the early Jesuit missionaries wrote the Miami-Illinois term šikaakwa in various ways (Chicag8, Checag8, sundry non-8 spellings). Jesuits reading that saw “Chicagwa.” Non-Jesuit folks saw “Chicagou.”

The latter, of course, was anglicized and passed through the years to become the name of the 1970s rock trumpet band.

That was massively oversimplified, of course.* And much is surmise by historians, linguists and other people who write based on more than some Google searches after a delicious ramp dinner.

But here’s where it gets weird.

Šikaakw- is the root word. It’s like the Ir- in Ireland and Irish.

The Miami and Illinois tribes didn’t end place names with a waa sound. If they were talking about a particular spot, they would have called it šikaakwahkionki.

Calling a place šikaakwa would sound as silly to a Miami-Illinois speaker as someone saying, “Well, I’m Ireland on my mother’s side and my dad’s family came from Greek.”

But šikaakwa is a perfect name for a river. A river where you could find wild ramps.

So “Chicago” is the English version of a French misinterpretation of a Jesuit shorthand of a Miami-Illinois word for a river where you could find a bunch of the little white bulbs chopped finely and simmering away in my risotto.

And, to make it confusing, šikaakw- meant any number of garlics, leeks or onions to the Potawatomi, who displaced the Miami. By the time whites started asking about the word, they were asking the wrong folks.

For comparison, ask a Brit to tell you why it’s called a “fanny pack.”

The ramp became the major candidate for namesake in the 1990s, displacing previous front runner the nodding wild onion. A researcher reading an early explorer’s descriptions of the plant’s taste, location and leaf shape deemed the ramp a more likely Chicago.

Whether it was the Potawatomi translation of the Miami or for some reason my googling could not find, it’s pretty cool that three researchers — John Swenson using history and botany, Michael McCafferty using linguistics and Joseph Kirkland in the goldurn 1800s — all arrived at the same plant, the one filling an apartment with a tangy, savory aroma in the city that bears its name.

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* (If you want the full story on how ramps became “Chicago,” read this 2005 article from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. [If you want the full story on the 2005 article, it’s a pretty stellar takedown of a 2004 letter to the editor from an amateur who thought he could hang with the big boys. {Do not mess with academics. They’ll cut you to ribbons and cite their sources while doing it.}])

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