The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.
Do you know the word?
According to Slate, who recently made an interactive map titled “The United Slang of America,” if Illinois had an official word, it would be “grabowski.”
It’s definitely an interesting choice. Without a doubt, it’s unique to Illinois, especially Chicago.
And from my experiences, it’s a word many Illinoisans and Chicagoans don’t know.
Other states got more obvious choices. Hawaii got “aloha.” Maryland got “hon” — short for honey. Texas got “hoss.”
There were plenty of weird ones too. People in Rhode Island call milkshakes “cabinets”? News to me! And I’ve never heard the term “tump,” but I’ve spent essentially no time in Arkansas, so I guess that’s not a surprise (“to tip over or dump out”).
This list is by no means scientific or definitive, and Slate admits that. They used a few techniques to come up with words. They talked to linguists, surveyed friends and colleagues and even let people on Facebook chime in. They found five to 10 options for each state, then argued about which was best.
And for Illinois, they chose grabowski.
For me, grabowski, which I haven’t heard in years, means hardworking. I asked my baby-boomer father — who is Polish and grew up on the Northwest Side of Chicago — what he thought it meant, and he didn’t disagree with that, but he also mentioned that it’s a complimentary way of referring to someone who’s polish (as opposed to the derogatory way, which I won’t mention here).
According to Slate, grabowski is “a hard-working, tough, blue-collar individual.”
The term is, without a doubt, purely Chicagoan.
In Chicago, with its large Polish population and heritage, there are plenty of people with the surname “Grabowski.” For Mike Ditka, one-time king of Chicago, there were many grabowskis, including one who was actually named Grabowski — Jim Grabowski.
A graduate of the Northwest Side’s William Howard Taft High School, Jim Grabowski was a star football player at the University of Illinois who went on to a career in the NFL. He ended up playing his last season with the Bears in 1971. In the 1980s, Ditka would scream Grabowski’s name many times during the height of the championship Bears. In press conferences, he’d even refer to the entire team as the Grabowski Bears. If Ditka called you a grabowski, it was a high compliment. It meant you were a good guy, you worked hard and you were loyal.
“There’s teams that are named Smith, and some are named Grabowski,” Ditka said in the interview below, which also features him doing a shuffle for his “Grabowskis” similar to the famous Superbowl Shuffle.
As former CBS 2 Chicago reporter Jennifer McLogan — who has since moved on to report for CBS in New York — states in the clip, grabowskis are a symbol of “determination and pride… Tough guys who didn’t mind bleeding and hard work.”
The SNL super fans? Grabowskis, the lot of ’em.
Earlier, I watched a Facebook conversation unfold after a friend mentioned the word. To some Chicagoans, it was a familiar word they’d grown up with. Other life-long Chicagoans had no idea what it meant. Some were familiar with it because of Ditka, some knew it without realizing Ditka had helped popularize it outside of Chicago’s working class. It was an interesting conversation to watch unfold.
Was grabowski a term in Chicago before Ditka shoved it in the spotlight? While my gut says yes, I’ve yet to see any proof of any other etymology.
Would grabowski be my choice for an official word for Illinois? For Chicago? Probably not.
But it’s certainly an interesting choice, that’s for sure.