How to Sound Like a Local in Chicago

It should come as no surprise that Chicago is one of America’s favorite cities for tourists, locals and newcomers alike. Sure, the winters are notoriously harsh, but the glorious summers more than make up for it. The fact that the city is home to some of the nation’s finest food, music, art and theater — all of which can be enjoyed year-round — certainly doesn’t hurt either.

And though Chicago is, at its heart, a welcoming city founded on a bedrock of good ole-fashioned Midwestern values, it can sometimes be tough to break into the scene without knowing some of the lingo.

This is where we come in. We rounded up some of the most common idiosyncrasies of the Chicago vernacular — the lingo only locals know, the abbreviations no one actually uses and the street names even we still screw up. Turns out there’s a lot more to it than adding “Da” in front of everything “Superfans” style.


Don’t Be ‘Chi’

First and foremost, you won’t make any friends if you tell anyone how excited you are to finally be in “Chi (rhymes with ‘Bye’) Town.” Even worse: “Chi (rhymes with ‘Bee’) Town.” Just call it Chicago.

’S’ Is For Silent

While we’re talking pronunciation, we need to clear up something else: Your new home state’s name — Illinois — absolutely does not sound anything like “noise.” Say it with us now: “il-i-NOY.”

Know Your Boundaries

Another common red flag of a non-local is claiming to be “born and raised in Chicago” when you’re actually from Lisle (as in Lyle Lovett) or that your “cousin’s in the city, too!” when she really lives in Oak Park. If you’re moving to the city, be sure to study up on your neighborhoods and suburbs and try not to mix them up.

Don’t Do LSD

This has nothing to do with hallucinogenic drugs, mind you. The LSD we’re talking about is the acronym some non-locals use to describe Lake Shore Drive, which will often serve as your go-to north-south travel route. (Though not at rush hour.) Locals tend to call this street, simply, “Lake Shore.” Dropping the “drive” is a practice that carries over to other street names, too — Milwaukee Avenue becomes “Milwaukee,” Randolph Street becomes “Randolph.”

Say Their Name

When you’re getting around Chicago, you might be tempted to refer to the major highways that take you in and out of the city by their route numbers — 90, 94, 190, etc. But most locals refer to these highways — which are actually called expressways. The big ones to learn are the Kennedy, Jane Addams, Edens, Dan Ryan, Stevenson and the Eisenhower. Knowing this cast of characters will also make it a lot easier for you to decipher traffic reports as both TV and radio reporters exclusively use these names.

The Loop vs. The Circle

More confusion for new arrivals might revolve around the difference between the Loop (what we call our downtown area) and the Circle (the interchange where the Dan Ryan, Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways and Congress). Don’t get it twisted.

We’re Not Good With Change

There’s also a number of popular landmarks around town which have officially changed names sometimes decades ago — but don’t tell that to a native Chicagoan with a straight face.

While the world-famous Sears Tower was officially renamed the Willis Tower in 2009, literally no one calls it that. The flagship Marshall Field’s store in the Loop may have a Macy’s logo splattered on it today, but it will forever be “Field’s” in the hearts of many. Finally, there’s Comiskey Park, where the White Sox play, was renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003 but most still call it Comiskey.

And We Keep It Simple

Chicagoans don’t care much for pretense. Build us a beautiful piece of public art called the Cloud Gate — one of the city’s most iconic landmarks — and we’ll refer to it exclusively as “The Bean” within days. Seriously, no one calls it the Cloud Gate. We also like to shorten things. It’s not the Chicago Tribune we’re reading, it’s the “Trib.” It’s not Lake Michigan we’re hanging at this weekend, it’s just “the lake” or “the beach.” Magnificent Mile? Mag Mile. Taste of Chicago? Taste. Lollapalooza? Lolla.

That Includes The Bar

Most locals play it pretty straight when ordering drinks at the bar, but here are two that might trip you up — first, Goose Island’s signature brew is pronounced “3-1-2” and not “three-12.” And as for Chicago’s signature liqueur, malört, it’s “ma-LORT” not “MAL-ort.”

Beyond The Grid

It won’t take you long in the city to develop a basic understanding of our streets’ grid system, which makes it relatively easy to get around. But the city does have some tricky-to-pronounce streets that even trip up locals on occasion. So, repeat after us: The city’s best Indian food is on Devon (dee-VAHN). Get off the Brown Line at Paulina (paul-EYE-nah). The Apple Store? Oh, it’s on Clybourn (CLY-born).

Come On Ride The Train

On the subject of getting around, odds are, you’ll be spending some time riding the CTA train. So what do you call it? Most folks will refer to the CTA as “The L” (as in “elevated”), as each of the city’s train tracks run above ground for at least part of their routes. Other locals will refer to the specific train line, as in “I’ll just hop on the Pink Line.” But, sorry New Yorkers, nobody calls it “the subway.”

Above All Else, There Are Two Words You’ll Never Say

At least not in a positive context: Navy Pier. The tourist mecca is generally the last place any Chicagoan would want to find themselves. If you remember just one point from this entire piece, let this be the one.

Joseph Erbentraut