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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, March 3

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Sometimes I receive great questions from people that I don't end up using for this column. Often the only reason a question is not featured is because it requires only a very short answer. In other cases I may find other web sites have already answered the question far better than I could have. And, in a few instances, I admit I just can't find an adequate answer.

In spite of these excuses, however, many of the creative queries I have received deserve to be featured. So, here are just a few of the great questions that have been languishing in my inbox. Thanks to everyone who submitted them, and keep them coming!

Q: Who coined the term "Chicagoland"?

Although I have never found hard evidence, people commonly credit Colonel Robert McCormick, the legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune, with popularizing the word. McCormick, however, envisioned "Chicagoland" as a sphere of influence stretching across the entire Midwest. Only later did the term come to refer to its present geographical boundaries, which includes Cook County and the surrounding collar counties.

Q: Why does Chicago have city stickers? I can't help but think there was some reason other than getting money from residents, but I can't figure out what it might be.

Sorry, but it really is just to get money from residents, or at least we residents unfortunate enough to own a car in this city. The city sticker is simply visible proof that vehicle owners have paid their Chicago vehicle tax for the current fiscal year. In fact, that $75 square of adhesive is more properly known as the "city vehicle tax sticker." Personally, I'd rather stick with my Lisa Frank unicorns.

Q: On parts of the Red Line (and on other lines as well), there are five rails on each side of the platform. There are the two the trains actually run on, the electrified third rail and a set of narrower tracks that run between the two main rails. What is the purpose of these narrower tracks? Were the train cars changed, and, if so, why weren't the original tracks removed?

The narrower tracks are not the result of a change in the width of the train cars on the CTA. Instead, those inner rails are actually guard rails, meant to prevent the train from diving into the street in the event of a derailment. The guard rail works by trapping the derailed wheels between it and the main track.

To find out more about the guard rails and other safety measures on the CTA tracks, check out the excellent Frequently Asked Questions page at Chicago "L".org.

Q: What is the origin of the word "swashbuckling"? What does it mean?

I love receiving the occasional non-Chicago related question, and this is a perfect example.

According to that most venerable reference work, the Oxford English Dictionary, a swashbuckler is literally "one who makes a noise by striking his own or his opponent's shield with his sword." It comes from the combination of the verb "swash," which means "to make a noise as of swords clashing," and "buckler," a term for a particular type of "small, round shield."

Broadly, however, a swashbuckler is defined as "a swaggering bravo or ruffian." Swashbuckling, then, is described as "acting like, or characteristic of the conduct of a swashbuckler; noisily swaggering, blustering."

The first use of the word swashbuckler is traced in the OED to 1560, while swashbuckling made its first documented appearance in 1693.

And last, but not least:

Q: Could Chicago ever get slammed with city-destroying storms like in that TV movie that aired last year, Category 6? Are we perceived to be in some kind of bad weather triangle?

Umm, no. To both questions.

In Category 6: Day of Destruction, which aired last November on CBS, "Chicago" (filmed in Winnepeg) is devastated by a "super-storm" caused by a collision of several bad weather systems. Such an event would be highly unlikely to occur in real life, to put it mildly.

And, while our fair city is not in any specific "bad weather triangle," Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes are susceptible to a globally unusual phenomenon known as a seiche.

A seiche is a dramatic fluctuation in the lake's water level produced by a sudden change in the air pressure, which is often caused by a chain of thunderstorms in the area. A rapid drop in air pressure on one side of the lake can cause the lake's water level to also drop, which, in turn causes the water level to swell on the other side of the lake, with potentially deadly results.

The worst recorded tragedy in Chicago occurred on June 26, 1954, when a seiche manifested as a ten-foot wave that hit Chicago's lakefront near Montrose harbor, killing eight people. Although not quite "Category 6," the incident is vividly remembered by long-time residents.

For more on seiches and tsunamis, see these collected questions posed to über-meteorologist Tom Skilling on the WGN Weather Blog.

Additional Sources

Bobula, Thomas G. "Seiches." The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, May 9, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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