Wednesday, May 31, 2023

RETRO Episode 116: Calling Dibs and Other Chicago Phrases


RETRO: Shauna and Dan return from Chicago armed with numerous parts of what newspaperman Mike Ryoko called "Chicagoese". We take a good look at the origins of Calling Dibs before doing snippets of other words and phrases like Ferris Wheel, Jinx, Pipe Dream, and more. Bonus: Dan wishes he knew I-290 was gonna be called the Eisenhower. It would have saved him so many headaches. More bonuses: Italian Beef, Hot Dogs, and Gluten-Free Donuts.

Originally aired July 7, 2021


Click to read the show notes


Welcome back to Bunny Trails! This week we are bringing you a retro episode all the way back from July 2021. In this episode we explored the phrase Calling Dibs along with several other Chicago phrases.


I relistened to this episode this weekend and really enjoyed it. I write and research episodes and listen to them several times during the editing process, but I rarely have the chance to sit and listen to an episode that aired a couple years ago and just reminisce in it. 


I had fun listening to this episode, too. It brought back memories from the trip. I greatly miss The Field and The Art Institute. I’d go back just for that. Beyond bringing back memories, I like re-listening to old episodes because I inevitably end up re-learning something. 


I also have a couple of quick notes from this episode. First, I have been back to Chicago again since we did this episode and it was during winter. And I can tell you with no ill will intended that I do not care for Chicago winters. The cold is bad enough, but the Hawk coming in off of Lake Michigan is simply brutal.

I’ve also had the opportunity to try both Lou Malnati’s and Giordano's deep dish pizza. So while I wasn’t ready to weigh in during the original airing of this show, I feel comfortable saying this now. Deep dish pizza just isn’t my favorite way to enjoy pizza. Of course if someone brought deep-dish, I’d eat it with no complaints. It’s the midwest way. But I wouldn’t choose it myself. 


That feels like a cop-out. But I’ll leave you to your shame. Unfortunately due to my food allergies I can’t have either of them to even taste test them, but I still stand behind the gluten free cake donuts at Do-Rite Donuts. 

But before we get to the show. I just want to give a quick shout out to our Patrons who make Bunny Trails possible, and especially to our Top Spot on the Patreon, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig Lopez. And also a quick thank you to our newest patron, Heather. Heather, thank you for joining the Bunny Trails community.


And you can join that community, too, at 

With that, let’s get you to the episode. Originally airing 7 July 2021, Calling Dibs and other Chicago Phrases. And for the record, my vote goes to Giordano’s hand-stretched thin crust pizza. 

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 116: Calling Dibs and other Chicago Phrases

Record Date: July 5, 2021

Air Date: July 7, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Recently Shauna and I traveled to Chicago. I was there for my day job while Shauna took a week off and explored some of her bucket list places. 

Shauna, how was your vacation?

Shauna: Talk about Art Institute and Field Museum. (We will talk about Navy Pier in a minute and we will talk about food later).

You and I met up one night and went to the Navy Pier and rode the Centennial Wheel, which is approximately 200 miles above the Earth. Technically it's a smidge under 200 feet, but I’m not sure I would have been able to tell the difference with my eyes closed and hugging the seat so tightly. I have heard it offers unparalleled views of Chicago and Lake Michigan. 

But maybe the most amazing part about Chicago is the language, of which newspaper columnist Mike Royko once said, 

“Chicagoese is one of the world’s most beautiful languages.” 

Shauna, did you know “Ferris Wheel” comes to us from Chicago? One of the first examples was constructed for Chicago’s World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition by George WG Ferris in 1893. The Chicago World’s Fair, as it was known, was held at Jackson Park on the South Side. That park is also the future site of the Barack Obama Presidential Center. 

We’ll discuss several essential turns of phrase you’ll hear in Chicago, but our primary topic this week is “Calling Dibs”.


From an AUGUST 13, 2018 article in Chicago magazine by EDWARD MCCLELLAND


In Chicago, competition for street parking is fierce, especially in the winter. If you shovel out a space on your block, you call “dibs” by blocking it with lawn chairs, crates, sawhorses, or other cast-off possessions. Became an accepted practice after the 1967 blizzard, which hit the city with 23 inches of snow. Drivers who violate dibs are likely to find key tracks on their paint jobs – or worse.

From OED

A children's word used to express a claim or option on some object (frequently int.); chiefly in to get (etc.) dibs on (something), to have first claim to. Cf. bags I phr., dubs n. U.S. colloquial.

From Merriam Websters

When someone says that they have dibs on something, they claim or declare rights to that thing before anyone else. 

Dibs in this sense is children's slang that goes back to the early 1900s. By mid-20th century, it had made its way into the more formal writing of some adult users of English, though even today dibs remains more prevalent among the young.

MW claims the term is derived from an old childrens’ game called dibstones, which takes its name from the now obsolete verb “dib” meaning to dab or pat. The OED corroborates this by saying it is probably a derivative of dib as a verb, and compares to the “dabber” and “dabs”, which were applied to a similar game based on the definition “to strike somewhat sharply and abruptly”. It also notes the use of Dibbs - spelled with two Bs - as a game played by children has been used since at least 1736 with a citation in the Dictionarium Britannicum. 

MW notes that Dibs, the children’s game had many versions, but usually resembled something like jacks, or sometimes marbles

Fascinatingly, we see dibs pop up in the 1859 work The Rogue’s Lexicon, which was a dictionary of American Thieves’ Cant by George Matsell. In this work, dibs was used to mean portion or share. 

MW notes:

The path from the "dibstones" dibs to this "money" sense is unmarked—but, undeniably, any game of chance does entice betting. It does seem plausible that the "money" sense influenced the word's application to a "portion" or "share"

MW closes out their look on the phrase by noting that dibs as a general expression for laying a claim on something is a development of the 1900s. How, though? MWs last work on the subject…

“Perhaps its slang use played a role, but how, exactly, is something we'll let someone else take the first crack at piecing together.”

1932   American Speech (the magazine of the American Dialect Society) 7 401   Dibs, interj., an interjection giving option on first chance or place. ‘Dibs on that magazine when you're through.’ ‘Dibs on going with the team if there's room.’

You’ll notice the American Dialect Society didn’t make any claims on the age of the user. However, this 1941 advertisement seems to be geared to appealing to “Fellow Kids” with:

1943   Americans Notes & Queries 3 139/1   If a sprout came out of the house with some candy or an apple and saw a couple of friends who might have an interest in his prize, the only sensible thing for him to do was to cry ‘No dibs!’ before they could say ‘I/We got dibs!’

1958  - From an article called, “The Big -Eyed Wonder of Buying a New Car”

So most of these examples I could find in adult print areas does seem to hint at a more childlike usage. However, there is nothing young or innocent when it comes to dibs as a way of claiming a parking spot. And this seems to be what Chicagoans are claiming when they say “Calling Dibs” is a Chicago origination. And I’m not sure I can disagree with them. 

From a 2019 article by Lisa Melilo in the online relocation site, Blueprint talking about essential phrases for those moving to Chicago.

Parking spot dibs

Are you even a Chicago resident if you’ve never played dibs over parking spots? Parking in the city becomes scarce during the winter, especially once plows make their way through the streets after a storm. Residents who are unfortunate enough to rely on street parking are forced to dig their cars out from underneath feet of packed snow and ice, an unpleasant and laborious task. Once a person has invested time and effort into digging their car out from a public spot, it only seems fair that they should get to keep it.

And this is exactly what Chicagoans do. Each winter, residents lay claim to their hard-earned parking spots by placing objects that range from chairs and cones to vacuum cleaners in them while they’re out. It’s considered a cardinal sin to mess with another person’s dibs marker, and doing so could even get your tires slashed. The City of Chicago parking enforcement even seems to go along with it. However, once the snow starts to melt, they issue a warning that any leftover items will be picked up by trash crews. 

After the break, we want to walk through a few other examples of essential Chicago phrases, but first we want to give a shout out to the folks who make this show possible!

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez. 

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. But even though Dan and I volunteer our time, there are still real costs to making this show, including hosting fees, equipment maintenance, domain costs, and more. 

And we turn to you, our listening community, to help cover those costs. To do that, we use Patreon, a service that allows you to support the creators and artists you love. Our patrons get exclusive behind the scenes content, early access to episodes, and access to our videos so you can actually watch along as Dan and I make the show. 

Special thanks to our newest Patron, JGP. 

If you are in a financially stable place, and would like to support this educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options. We are bunnytrailspod on Patreon, or find links to everything we do at

Modern Uses

Chicago Magazine

Top 40 Chicago Words—Our Contributions to the English Language


JUNE 23, 2010

Grabowski A hard-working, blue-collar, lunch-bucket type. Invented by Mike Ditka to describe the 1985 Bears.

pipe dream An apparent reference to the visions of opium smokers, “pipe dream” first appeared in print—with a hyphen—in the Tribune in 1890, describing the impossibility of aerial navigation.

bum rap In its original sense of a false criminal charge, the term “bum rap” first appeared in print on June 5, 1913, in the Tribune. In its extended sense of undeserved criticism or blame, it first appeared in print on September 30, 1921, also in the Tribune.

jinx Originally referring to curses in baseball, “jinx” first appeared in print in the Chicago Daily News in 1911. The word probably comes from either iynx, the Latin name for the wryneck bird, which was considered magical, or the title character of the 19th-century American popular song “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines” (a connection made by the word researcher Barry Popik).

Patrons at every level have access to our behind the scenes video, which includes bonus content. This week we’ll explore a few more of the words and phrases from this list. Our Behind the Scenes Video airs on Friday’s at

From that Lisa Melillo article in Blueprint:

“Chicago has a unique accent, thanks to its status as a mixing pot of Midwesterners and transplants from other major cities. As you spend more time in the city, you might find yourself picking up some local slang to help fit in with your new coworkers and friends.”

Ride the L

London has the Tube, New York City has the Subway, and Chicago has the L. This, of course, is Chicago’s public transportation system. The letter L stands for “elevated”, referring to the signature raised tracks, particularly in the Loop area of downtown. Chicago’s first elevated tracks were built in the late 1800s, making it the second-oldest public transportation in the U.S. after New York. Today, large portions of the tracks are underground, but calling it the “L” has stuck as a core part of the Chicago accent.

Play bags

You might have played the lawn game called “corn hole”, but in Chicago, it’s simply called “bags”. This popular summer activity is frequently played at bars, parks, and weekend cookouts. The object of the game is to throw a beanbag through a small hole in a board from several feet away. Points are awarded based on where the beanbag lands. Some diehard players even design and paint their own boards with their favorite sports team’s colors and logo. Say this word in a proper Chicago accent and it should sound more along the lines of “begs”.

Lou’s or Giordano’s?

You’ve already heard about Chicago’s obsession with deep-dish pizza. What you probably don’t know is just how deep the rivalry runs between competing pizza restaurants. In Chicago, the biggest divide among residents is between two major pizza chains: Lou Malnati’s and Giordano’s. Once you pick a side, you’ll be expected to defend its honor with your life. And you should prepare to do so; as a new resident of Chicago, you’ll likely be questioned frequently about which deep-dish pizza is your favorite.

Dan: I didn’t get to Lou’s, but I did make it to Giordanos. I think I’ll reserve any comments until I make it back to try Lou’s, though. I did enjoy some Italian Beef sandwiches as well as some great hot dogs. Chicago knows how to do food. 

Shauna: Food? Donuts.

Call the highways by name

Look at Chicago on a map and you’ll see some of the city’s major highways listed by number: I-290, I-94, I-90, I-55, and so on. However, you won’t ever hear those numbers used by a true local. Chicagoans call the highways by their official names, such as the Eisenhower, the Dan Ryan, and the Stevenson. It’ll take a bit of practice, but eventually, you’ll get the hang of it.

Dan: I listened to a local radio station while I was driving 3 hours every day. I could not make heads or tails of what they were talking about. I wish I had known this little tidbit sooner as it would have saved me some serious confusion! 

More from the Chicago Magazine, this time from the AUGUST 13, 2018 article by EDWARD MCCLELLAND

"Four Plus One"

Cheaply constructed, architecturally unloved five-story apartment houses in which the first floor is a combination lobby/parking lot. Proliferated in Lake View and Lincoln Park in the 1960s, taking advantage of a zoning loophole that allowed a parking lot to be categorized as a basement. Technically, that made the buildings four-stories high, allowing developers to save money by building with masonry exteriors and wood-frame interiors.


The front room of a bungalow or flat, overlooking the street. The family’s best furniture is in the front room, but it’s only used to entertain company or open Christmas presents.

"The Hawk"

A cold wind off Lake Michigan. The term originated in Chicago’s African-American community, and was brought to the world’s attention by smooth R&B balladeer Lou Rawls, who mentioned it in the spoken-word intro to “Dead End Street”: “The Hawk, the almighty Hawk, the wind … in Chicago, the Hawk not only socks it to you, he socks it through you, like a giant razor blade blowing down the street.” - Lou Rawls - Dead End Street

We’ll wrap up with two sports-types terms mentioned in this article. 


A street game played by flinging a rubber ball against a set of concrete steps or a ledge. If an opposing players catches the rebound, it’s an out. Singles, doubles, triples, and home runs are scored if the ball passes predetermined landmarks. Also known as “3 Outs.”

"16-inch" - Also known as Chicago Ball

Uniquely Chicago brand of slow-pitch softball that caught on during the Great Depression for two very practical reasons: a bigger, softer ball didn’t travel as far as the standard 12-incher, so it couldn’t be hit out of tiny urban parks. And, it could be caught barehanded, by fielders who couldn’t afford gloves. Each summer, Chicago emergency rooms see a spike in walk-in patients with jammed or broken fingers, most of them still wearing their softball jerseys.

Wrap up...

Regional words have always been a fascination of mine. Examples like saying “pop” in Chicago, “Soda” in US Northeast and Southwest, or “Coke” as a generic term where I’m from in Texas - there are many different words for the same thing. And those things spreading in regional areas is a cool way to see just how much we really can affect those around us. 

Chicago was a great place to visit, though I personally don’t think I could handle the storied winters there. Even in June, the Hawk got to me a bit. So visiting in the warmer summer months is probably more up my alley.



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have some Chicago love to share this week, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on any of our social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram all @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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