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Ask Torontoist: Who You Calling “The Big Smoke”?

Ask Torontoist features questions posed by you, and answered by our elite team of specially trained investigative experts (also known as our staff). Send your questions to ask@torontoist.com.

Reader rwild asks:

Why is Toronto referred to as “The Big Smoke”?

Torontoist answers:

Excellent question, rwild. And it’s one that constantly nags Torontoist contributors as we struggle to spice up our writing about the city by substituting “Toronto” for one of its many nicknames. And Toronto has plenty of nicknames: Hogtown, Queen City, Toronto the Good, Muddy York, The Athens of The Dominion, the City that Works, Hollywood North, T-Dot, and the pertinent one here, The Big Smoke.
The origins of some of these monikers are fairly easy to trace. “Hogtown” likely comes from the city’s former reputation as home to some of the British Empire’s most renowned bacon and pork manufacturers, Canada’s answer to Cincinnati’s “Porkopolis.” The designation of “Hollywood North,” which is applied more frequently to Vancouver, refers (rather obviously) to our thriving film industry. “Toronto the Good” was used by the city’s twenty-fifth mayor, William Holmes Howland, in his effort to revamp the city’s image as a slum of drunken iniquity and prop it up as a bastion of Victorian morality (of course, we more commonly hear “Toronto the Good” used with tongue firmly in cheek). Getting to the bottom of “The Big Smoke” handle is a bit trickier.
In his book Naming Canada: Stories About Canadian Place Names, Alan Rayburn suggests that the term “The Big Smoke” may have its roots in an Australian Aboriginal comment regarding industrial Australian cities, which was then applied to Toronto by Allan Fotheringham, in his long-running column for Maclean’s. Famously controversial, Fotheringham was never at a loss for cutesy nicknames, or “Fotheringhamisms.” He was known to refer to Ottawa as “Coma City” and former PM Joe Clark as “Jurassic Clark” (which is pretty good, as puns go). As far as “The Big Smoke,” Fotheringham used the term as a means of describing Toronto as a city with “big reputation, little to show for it.” To Fotheringham, any status the city might have as “Toronto the Good” or “The Athens of the Dominions,” was all smoke and mirrors.
While some other Canadian cities are also referred to as “The Big Smoke,” such as Sudbury for its towering INCO smokestacks and Vancouver for its heavy fogs, once again, Toronto suffers another snarky potshot from outsiders. Maybe now we’ll think twice before cheerily self-applying it. Though “The Big Smoke” is still better than “Cowtown” or “Pile O’ Bones.” Or “Coma City.” It’s also way catchier than Montreal’s la ville aux cent clochers (the city of a hundred belltowers).

Comments

  • rek

    “big reputation”
    Toronto?
    Really?

  • http://www.blog.canoe.ca/canoedossier David Newland

    You can’t possibly have thought The Big Smoke was a compliment, surely?
    BTW inequity is and was rife here, but I’m quite sure you meant drunken iniquity.

  • http://www.blog.canoe.ca/canoedossier David Newland

    Surely you didn’t think “The Big Smoke” was a compliment?
    Also: inequity was and is rife in Toronto, but I think you meant drunken iniquity.

  • John Semley

    We’ve corrected this typo to clarify that William Holmes Howland was concerned wickedness, immorality and general knavery of Toronto’s drunks, and not unfairness or bias amongst them.

  • http://undefined EricSmith

    London’s been called The Big Smoke for some time; I’d suggest that that’s probably the reason that other cities in the English-speaking world get the nickname. Fotheringham certainly didn’t come up with it.

  • Andrew Pulsifer

    I’m pretty disappointed that you didn’t get a Lost reference in this article. It would have been so easy…

  • http://undefined SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    Dunno what the Foth was on about, but Toronto has always been “Toronto the Greed” to the rest of Canada.
    Q: How many Torontonians does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Well, most just stand there holding the bulb waiting for the world to revolve around them.
    Maybe smoke because they light a fire to try and see in the darkness?
    Never heard of Vancouver referred to as “Big Smoke” in fact cigarette usage is very rare here (compared to YYZ).
    ( from the snarky remarks department SRD)

  • http://undefined SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    Dunno what the Foth was on about, but Toronto has always been “Toronto the Greed” to the rest of Canada.
    Q: How many Torontonians does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Well, most just stand there holding the bulb waiting for the world to revolve around them.
    Maybe smoke because they light a fire to try and see in the darkness?
    Never heard of Vancouver referred to as “Big Smoke” in fact cigarette usage is very rare here (compared to YYZ).
    ( from the snarky remarks department SRD)

  • http://undefined SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    Dunno what the Foth was on about, but Toronto has always been “Toronto the Greed” to the rest of Canada.
    Q: How many Torontonians does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Well, most just stand there holding the bulb waiting for the world to revolve around them.
    Maybe smoke because they light a fire to try and see in the darkness?
    Never heard of Vancouver referred to as “Big Smoke” in fact cigarette usage is very rare here (compared to YYZ).
    ( from the snarky remarks department SRD)

  • http://undefined SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    Dunno what the Foth was on about, but Toronto has always been “Toronto the Greed” to the rest of Canada.
    Q: How many Torontonians does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Well, most just stand there holding the bulb waiting for the world to revolve around them.
    Maybe smoke because they light a fire to try and see in the darkness?
    Never heard of Vancouver referred to as “Big Smoke” in fact cigarette usage is very rare here (compared to YYZ).
    ( from the snarky remarks department SRD)

  • http://undefined SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    Dunno what the Foth was on about, but Toronto has always been “Toronto the Greed” to the rest of Canada.
    Q: How many Torontonians does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Well, most just stand there holding the bulb waiting for the world to revolve around them.
    Maybe smoke because they light a fire to try and see in the darkness?
    Never heard of Vancouver referred to as “Big Smoke” in fact cigarette usage is very rare here (compared to YYZ).
    ( from the snarky remarks department SRD)

  • http://undefined SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    Dunno what the Foth was on about, but Toronto has always been “Toronto the Greed” to the rest of Canada.
    Q: How many Torontonians does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Well, most just stand there holding the bulb waiting for the world to revolve around them.
    Maybe smoke because they light a fire to try and see in the darkness?
    Never heard of Vancouver referred to as “Big Smoke” in fact cigarette usage is very rare here (compared to YYZ).
    ( from the snarky remarks department SRD)

  • rek

    How could Toronto, the city which gives more to the rest of Canada than it gets back, be considered greedy?
    As for what the rest of Canada thinks of Toronto, I don’t give a damn.

  • http://thetyee.ca/ SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    One impressive contribution I know of:
    The rest of Canada is united; English, French, Aboriginal, and new arrivals, in a universal dislike of Toronto, which as you say is heartily supported by Torontonians. Thank you!

  • http://thetyee.ca/ SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    One impressive contribution I know of:
    The rest of Canada is united; English, French, Aboriginal, and new arrivals, in a universal dislike of Toronto, which as you say is heartily supported by Torontonians. Thank you!

  • http://thetyee.ca/ SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    One impressive contribution I know of:
    The rest of Canada is united; English, French, Aboriginal, and new arrivals, in a universal dislike of Toronto, which as you say is heartily supported by Torontonians. Thank you!

  • http://thetyee.ca/ SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    One impressive contribution I know of:
    The rest of Canada is united; English, French, Aboriginal, and new arrivals, in a universal dislike of Toronto, which as you say is heartily supported by Torontonians. Thank you!

  • http://thetyee.ca/ SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    One impressive contribution I know of:
    The rest of Canada is united; English, French, Aboriginal, and new arrivals, in a universal dislike of Toronto, which as you say is heartily supported by Torontonians. Thank you!

  • http://thetyee.ca/ SRD (snarky remarks dept.)

    One impressive contribution I know of:
    The rest of Canada is united; English, French, Aboriginal, and new arrivals, in a universal dislike of Toronto, which as you say is heartily supported by Torontonians. Thank you!

  • http://undefined torontothegreat

    I think London was given the name for the Great Smog of 1952. Any event, for reasons other than Fotheringham’s

  • http://undefined Mr Ornot

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Toronto’s reputation, circa 1900, as “the Belfast of North America”, due to the long-simmering and often riotous tensions between Green and Orange Irish factions in the city.

  • Jason

    I also assumed it was because farmers found it a little smoggier than home.
    I know the term “The Big Smoke” from farmers.

  • http://letfreedomrain.blogspot.com Jymn Parrett

    Actually, Vancouver should be the rightful owner of the term, Big Smoke, for reasons other than heavy fog.

  • Gus

    I believe the term “The Big Smoke” was originally coined for London, England during the industrial revolution…

  • Darko714

    Sodom of the Dominions.