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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).

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