Toddling

Steady there, cowboy.

Dear Word Detective:  “Chicago, Chicago … that toddlin’ town.”  What does “toddlin’” mean?  Do people “toddle” because they:  (a) imbibe excessively, (b) are buffeted by so much wind?  (It’s amusing that “Windy City” refers to blustering politicians) or (c) are wearing so much clothing to protect them from the weather that they toddle about, much like the little brother encased in a snowsuit who cannot put his arms down in “The Christmas Story”? — EC Goller.

Hey, I had a snowsuit like that.  But it didn’t bother me as much as the little halter-and-leash combo my parents made me wear when we went somewhere where there were crowds.  In retrospect, I understand why they did it.  I was a small, vague child, and easily misplaced.  But I do think the muzzle was overkill.

Onward.  You mention “Windy City” as the nickname of Chicago, which requires me to explain that the term was not, as is often said, coined by New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana during the 1890s tussle between New York and Chicago for the right to hold the 1893 Columbian Exposition (the World’s Fair held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America).  Etymologist Barry Popik (www.barrypopik.com) has found uses of “Windy City” in print as early as 1856, and it was frequently deployed in inter-city rivalry between Chicago and Cincinnati in the 1860s and 70s, in which “windy” had the dual meaning of “literally windy” and being “windy” with bombast and empty boasts.

The song “Chicago,” which begins “Chicago, Chicago, That toddling town, Chicago, Chicago, I’ll show you around,” was written in 1922 by Fred Fisher and has been recorded by numerous artists, the versions by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett being especially popular.

I would suggest a trip to Chicago to ask the natives what “toddling” in the song means, but they seem to have spent the past ninety-plus years trying, with no success, to figure that out.  The verb “to toddle” dates back to around 1600 and initially, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, meant “to walk or run with short unsteady steps, as a child just beginning to walk [or] an aged or invalid person.”  That’s obviously the sense that gave us “toddler” meaning “a very young child.”  By the early 18th century, however, “toddle” was also being used to mean “to walk in a leisurely fashion, to stroll.”  The roots of “toddle,” incidentally, are unknown, but it may be related to “totter,” which would fit well with that first meaning.

As to whether “toddling” in the song refers to walking with difficulty (presumably because of inebriation, though wind might be a contributing factor), or to strolling along in a leisurely fashion, perhaps on the shore of Lake Michigan, both possibilities are arguable.  But I’m afraid that the most likely answer is “neither.”  “Toddling town” was probably picked simply because it’s nicely alliterative, always a good idea for the first line of nearly anything.  Having begun his song with “Chicago, Chicago” and wanting to follow up with “That T-something-something Town,” Fred Fisher’s choices were, after all, limited.  “Tootling”?  Too creepy. “Truculent”?  Bad for business.  “Terrific”?  Too needy, and it doesn’t scan properly.  “Tedious”?  Only if he longed for cement overshoes.  All things considered, “toddling” seems almost inevitable.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page