We know that the South is eccentric … we have a very special way of doing certain things and an even more unique way of referring to things. It’s those eccentricities, though, that make the South so endearing and curious. Today, we’re doing a little digging to find out the origins of the unusual nicknames by which several Southern cities are known. Consider this your unofficial guide to Southern city nicknames, in alphabetical order (no playing favorites here!). Enjoy!
Nickname: The Classic City
Home to the Georgia Bulldogs, Athens is a town full of black and red. After hearing its nickname of The Classic City, we were a little puzzled. But for people who have visited the south Georgia town, the nickname will make far more sense. The architecture of the city itself influenced this epithet, as the small college town is known for its pristine, Neoclassical-style buildings, both on and off campus.
Nickname: The Magic City
Hard though it is to believe now, Birmingham was once a much quieter, smaller city. Shortly after the Civil War (much to the Confederacy’s chagrin), settlers in the area discovered that iron, coal and limestone were all abundantly available in the surrounding clay hills. The settlement quickly became an iron producing machine. The once-quaint collection of settlers exploded overnight into a booming metropolis of industry. Locals and developers alike agreed the city’s growth occurred so quickly, that it seemed almost like magic. Though the mining industry has faded since those late 19th-century days, Birmingham’s new nickname stuck.
Nickname: The Holy City*
Don’t let the nickname fool you, we’re not talking about Jerusalem or Rome, though Charlestonians do love their city with an affection that borders on reverence. The Palmetto State’s port city got its nickname early on for being one of the few places in the original 13 colonies that practiced religious tolerance. We at SB find this to be unbelievably ironic, as many of the 13 colonies were founded to be places where persecuted people could practice religious freedom. In any case, knowing the history behind this nickname does make us appreciate Charleston that much more. *May also go by Chuck Town.
Nickname: Queen City*
Charlotte earned its name and nickname from the same person — Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who married the King of Britain in 1767, a year before the North Carolina city was founded. The following year, when the Loyalist settlers realized they had enough people to form an actual city, they decided to name their town after the new regent in an effort to stay in the favor of the king. Unfortunately, their efforts did not work and the American Revolution broke out shortly thereafter. Named quite literally for the queen, Charlotte’s Queen City nickname has origins as old as the town itself. If you want to be especially savvy when referencing Queen City, you can shorten the moniker to QC.*May also go by Hornet’s Nest, The City of Churches, Banktown or the City of Industry.
Nickname: Space City*
A fairly straightforward nickname, Space City became synonymous with Houston because of NASA’s presence in the area during the 1960s. Houston is still home to the Johnson Space Center, as well as the Houston Astros MLB team and the NBA team, the Houston Rockets. Houston also has the world’s largest domed sports stadium, fondly known as the Astrodome. The U.S. government may not be thinking about trips to space right now, but we think it’s safe to say that space is never far from the minds of Houstonians. *May also go by Magnolia City or Bayou City.
Nickname: Rocket City
Huntsville, like Houston, earned its nickname from its association with NASA and the space activities that occurred within the city during the 1960s. Now home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville plays a key role in ongoing activities in outer space. The city is the leader in rocket propulsion research, allowing its residents to distinguish themselves from Houston.
Nickname: Derby City*
Another given in the history of nicknames, Louisville is known as Derby City because it is home to the Kentucky Derby each year. To say that Churchill Downs and horse racing are central to Louisville’s identity would be an understatement. This nickname may seem simple, but it is most certainly true. *May also go by River City, Falls City or Gateway to the South.
Nickname: Bluff City*
Memphis is known for a lot of things — being the location of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and the subsequent transformation of the Lorraine Motel into the National Civil Rights Museum, being the home of Elvis and Graceland, having a giant pyramid downtown on the bank of the Mississippi River, and many other things. However, the relationship between the city and the river that runs alongside it led to the birth of Memphis’ nickname. The bluff is the high ground that separates the city from the river, protecting the land from flooding. *May also go by Grind City.
Nickname: Music City*
This one seems a little obvious, given Nashville’s international reputation for producing music of all genres, though especially country. But the origins of the moniker go back more than 120 years. Nashville was home to a massive Confederate reunion in 1897. So many soldiers came to town to gather at the tabernacle that we now know as the Ryman Auditorium, that an additional balcony was built in the space to accommodate their numbers. Known for its superior acoustic qualities, the Ryman then held several fabulous performances in a row, earning it the title of Carnegie Hall of the South. Shortly thereafter, in 1925, a small WSM broadcast titled the “Grand Ole Opry” began launching artists, and then the city that inspired them, onto a national stage. Music became synonymous with Nashville, leading to the nickname that still rings true. *May also go by Athens of the South.
New Orleans, LA
Nickname: The Big Easy
The origins of New Orleans’ famous nickname are contentious at best, though some theories do seem more popular than others. New Yorkers started talking about the Big Apple’s strong jazz culture in the 1960s, which bothered some native New Orleanians, as jazz was actually born in the Louisiana port city. The most popular theory says that Betty Guilland, a columnist for The Times-Picayune, coined the term Big Easy as a contrast to the Big Apple, highlighting the more laid-back lifestyle of the Southern city. However, the nickname also has ties to the general music scene of the city. Some say Big Easy comes from the relatively easy time musicians have landing gigs in the city. Others claim that Big Easy is a comment on the inexpensive nature of living in NOLA. Author James Conaway argues he popularized the nickname. After overhearing the phrase in a conversation between men he passed on the street, he titled his crime novel set in New Orleans The Big Easy. Whatever its origins, we know that this nickname is spot-on in describing the culture of this Cajun city.
Nickname: The Little Easy
You’re reading that nickname correctly. Oxford’s nickname sounds strikingly like that of New Orleans because Oxford residents in fact describe their town as a “little New Orleans.” The city is home to Ole Miss and has a picture-book perfection in its small-town charm. The abundance of activity, both cultural and social, in the small town led to its identification with its larger, southern neighbor.
Nickname: City of Oaks
Raleigh is another city with a somewhat self-explanatory nickname. City of Oaks comes from the fact that Raleigh has many oak trees lining its downtown. The founding fathers of the North Carolina capital also made a point of ensuring the preservation of the city’s wooded and grassy areas. Today, many of those places are now a part of Raleigh’s extensive greenway network.
Nickname: River City
Richmond earned the title of River City because of the mighty James, which runs right through the center of town. Though geography is an important aspect of this nickname, the implications of the geography are far more important. The James River was integral to Richmond’s growth, both financially and residentially, as the water provided essential shipping and travel opportunities. Today, the river continues to influence the culture of the city, as it is known for being a great place to kayak, paddle board and whitewater raft.
NOT a nickname: Hot’Lanta
Okay, let’s get this straight. You might currently refer to Georgia’s capital city as Hot’Lanta, a nickname that comes from an instrumental song by the Allman Brothers. However, we feel compelled to tell you that no one who lives in Atlanta ever refers to it as Hot’Lanta. Not only do they never refer to their city as Hot’Lanta, but they actually cringe when anyone else does. You’re better off referring to the city as the A-T-L, which comes from the airport code attached to the booming metropolis.