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Depending on whom you talk to, Chicago is called the “Windy City” for more than one reason. Some believe it refers to the city’s politicians and their ability to sound off. Others think it comes from the boasting of Chicagoans about the glories of their rebuilt city after the Great Fire. And still others maintain that it simply refers to the breeze that comes from the lake.

David Wilton ’85 knows the truth behind this and many other apocryphal tales in linguistics, and he sets the record straight in his book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. The book does more than just separate fact from fiction — it traces the development of these myths and determines why they came about. It combines the study of folklore with etymology, the study of language.

“Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons,” Wilton explains. “Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it often seems disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.”

He wrote the book in response to the many false stories that arose in feedback to his web site,

“The key message is not whether a particular legend is true,” he explains. “The important thing is the importance of critical thinking and the habit of demanding evidence and not simply listening to conventional wisdom.”

A government and law graduate, Wilton credits Ilan Peleg, Dana Professor of Government and Law, for the invaluable research skills he developed.

“I took several classes with him and worked as his student assistant, and he also served on my thesis committee and provided a considerable amount of sage advice,” he says.

Categorized in: Alumni Profiles