Via John Emerson’s Facebook stream, I found this striking sentence: “The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy is the patchwork-quilt, the Midway Plaisance, the national chain-gang of Europe; a state that is not a nation, but a collection of nations, some with national memories and aspirations and others without, some occupying distinct provinces almost purely their own, and others mixed with alien races, but each with a different language, and each mostly holding the others foreigners as much as if the link of a common government did not exist.” John quoted this from a Mark Twain collection, but Twain himself was quoting Forrest Morgan’s essay “Austria and the Hungarian Revolution” (Traveler’s Record 30:3 [June 1894], p. 8; you can see it here—the sentence is at the bottom of the right-hand column—if Google Books will let you). Naturally, I was struck by the term “Midway Plaisance” and looked it up on Wikipedia, which told me “The Midway Plaisance, also known locally as the Midway, is a park on the South Side of the city of Chicago, Illinois. It is one mile long by 220 yards wide and extends along 59th and 60th streets, joining Washington Park at its west end and Jackson Park at its east end. […] It served as a center of amusements during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, lending the name ‘Midway’ to areas at county and state fairs where sideshows are located.” “Really?” (thought I), and decided to check with a more reliable source; sure enough, the OED (updated March 2002) confirmed it: “3. N. Amer. (At an exhibition, fair, etc.) a central avenue along which the chief exhibits or amusements are placed; any area of sideshows or amusements; (slang) a hall. Freq. with capital initial and with the. The use originated in the inclusion of the ‘Midway Plaisance’ of Chicago in the grounds of the exposition held there in 1893.” Wikipedia goes on to say “For the Exposition, the mile-long Midway Plaisance […] became a grand mix of fakes, hokum, and the genuinely educational and introduced the ‘hootchy-cootchy’ version of the belly dance in the ‘Street in Cairo’ amusement,” which explains, I suppose, the comparison to the Habsburg Empire.
The word plaisance is also interesting; the OED has (s.v. pleasance; updated June 2006) “5. orig. Sc. A pleasure ground; spec. (usu. in form pleasaunce) an enclosure or secluded part of a garden, esp. as attached to a large house, laid out with pleasant walks, trees, garden ornaments, etc. Also in extended use. Originally the name of a street or district in Edinburgh (and later other Scottish towns).” The OED says the U.S. pronunciation is /ˈplɛzns/ (PLEZZ-ns); is that how Chicagoans say it?


  1. Native Hyde Parker here. I’ve absolutely never heard it said and always wondered about it. Everyone just says “the Midway.” Hyde Park being what it is, I imagine that on the rare occasions it is said out loud, it is given careful French pronunciation.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    But does anyone apply the “grand mix of fakes, hokum, and the genuinely educational” description to the prominent university that now adjoins the Midway?

  3. If I recall my grad-school days correctly, the typical pronunciation by UofCers is along the lines of [ˌpleɪˈzɑns].

  4. The shoe sure fits the Hyde Park cabalists currently installed in a White House City of their own brand of governmental quackery. Plus ca change…

  5. I think it’s PLAY-since, but mostly just the Midway. (native north sider here, I don’t really come across it very often, and really don’t know either)
    J.W. Brewer – no, that goes without saying.

  6. Also, could the writer be evoking the mish-mash of foreign nations’ booths at the fair, rather than the carnival side-shows?

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Chicago is or was certainly one of the easier U.S. cities to find pan-Habsburg representation in (i.e. pick any ethnic group once under Hapsburg rule and you can probably find a relevant neighborhood or at least a church and a few restaurants in Chicago — exception: I don’t know where the Czechs went after Pilsen became a Mexican neighborhood).

  8. My recollection is the same as Ben Zimmer’s above, but on reflection, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve actually ever heard that, or if it’s just how I’ve always pronounced it in my head.

  9. Also, could the writer be evoking the mish-mash of foreign nations’ booths at the fair, rather than the carnival side-shows?
    Probably, alas.

  10. If I recall my grad-school days correctly, the typical pronunciation by UofCers is along the lines of [ˌpleɪˈzɑns].
    If that is in fact the way the locals say it, it presents me with a terrible dilemma, because that sounds pretentious to me, and I’d much rather say it the OED way (as if it were “pleasance”). But that would be wrong of me! What to do, what to do? I guess I just won’t go there.

  11. J Blakeslee says

    I found the following flowery description of the situation in 1893, hope it’s okay to drop a large quote here (emphasis mine):
    “The word, in the old charts of the park grounds, is most certainly spelled ‘Plaisance,’ and is supposed to be the French word, as our English word of that spelling, according to the ‘Century Dictionary,’ is an obsolete one, the present form of which is pleasance, pronounced ‘plézans.’ There is, naturally, a large majority of uneducated people, who, glorying in the unusual luxury of a French word, bring out the good English Midway with indifference and the Plaisance with all the glory of the z sound in the middle, and the accent on the last syllable, which becomes with them an exaggerated aunce. There are, of course, many educated people who follow the general custom without much thought, while opposed to them is a feeble minority, who maintain that Midway should be coupled with a word as English as itself, and insist upon walking in a pleasance, as their ancestors have done before them for many a long year in Merry England.”
    — The American Architect and Building News, Vol XLI, No. 925 (Sept. 16, 1893), p. 171.

  12. The Edinburgh pronunciation is plezz’ns i.e. it has a roughly equal stress on both syllables.

  13. My window at U of C Press looks out on the Midway and I cross it every day walking to and from work. I agree with Ben Zimmer on the pronunciation (Frenchlike, but in a lazy American way), but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say it out loud. Every day when I cross the Midway, I think to myself, “Annie Oakley was here.”

  14. Ah, is that where John Emerson has disappeared to? What a shame, I wouldn’t have assumed beforehand that he would have been very active in the Facebook walled garden.

  15. I found the following flowery description of the situation in 1893, hope it’s okay to drop a large quote here
    Of course it is (and trust me, that is not even close to a large quote—John Cowan thinks nothing of dropping thousand-word chunks of the OED into the comment box), and what a great quote it is!

  16. Only because you’ve said it was no problem, O Hat.

  17. Language Hat – there’s no need to give up hope: judging by Egypt’s tent, the international booths weren’t necessarily respectable. But if you find yourself in Hyde Park, you should course not pronounce the Plaisance part of the Midway as the locals do. It appears that the faculty and students of the University of Chicago avoid saying the name of their front lawn because they’re not sure how to pronounce it.

  18. a large majority of uneducated people
    Whatever you do, don’t refer to anyone within range of Oprahville and her televised Midway sideshows in such slanderous terms. The thought police will send you to be wee-educated.

  19. I had always assumed that there was a connection between the names of the Midway and Midway Airport. However, at the airport they make a big deal about the fact that it’s named after the air/sea battle, which would make the name of the park at least half a century older. My hypotheses are that a) it’s really just a coincidence, or b) somebody decided that it would be good to have an airport named after the battle not too far from the Midway.

  20. It’s very good hats:
    I have preserved this spam with its URL because it seems to actually be, for once, relevant.

  21. Only because you’ve said it was no problem, O Hat.
    Oh, it isn’t at all! You were just the most recent example that came to mind.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Wikipedia says that Midway Airport was Chicago Municipal Airport until 1949, which was the same year that a former military facility a bit further north and west was renamed “O’Hare” as part of its continuing repurposing for civilian/commercial use, and it began to become clear that ORD would eventually displace MDW as Chicago’s primary airport because the former had room for expansion and the latter did not, meaning that letting the destined-to-besmaller place just keep the name “Chicago” was perhaps no longer tenable. The fact that O’Hare is also a WW2-based name (see makes the standard account of MDW’s naming more plausible, imho. It is an admittedly striking coincidence that the Hyde Park Midway is at precisely the same “latitude” on Chicago’s cartesian grid as the approximate middle of the airport, but as you go west, the Midway name stops rather abruptly when it stops – then it’s just E or W 59th and 60th Sts. marking the latitude. But even locally in Hyde Park, I think U of C buildings fronting onto the Midway have their street addresses expressed as E 59 or E 60.

  23. The two Midways in one town could be a coincidence. Solomons Island, in southern Maryland, was used to train soldiers for amphibious landings during WW2. As Wikipedia notes, “Ironically, many of the servicemen who trained at the Solomons Maryland base, were sent to fight at the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean.” The Maryland island and town was named after Isaac Solomon, an early settler, so the two names are unrelated.

  24. The older I get the more I realize how very many coincidences there are in this world, and how hard it is for our brains to accept them.

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