People often refer to New Orleans as "The Big Easy" because of the laid back, easygoing attitude of most of the people in the city. While the term is now synonymous with New Orleans, the origins of the term have been shrouded in mystery. Thus, if you ask more than 100 people the question of why is New Orleans called The Big Easy, there are likely to be more than 100 different answers.
A few references to New Orleans as "The Big Easy" date back 100 years, at the turn of the 20th century. It appears that around 1910, a dance hall called the Big Easy existed for a short time. Gretna, the New Orleans neighborhood near where the club was located, makes this explanation plausible. However, after this club was disbanded, the term did not immediately become a part of everyday vernacular. Yet, the name of the club has been used in writings that are set during the time it was operational.
Another possible explanation for this nickname is because of New Orleans' place as the originator of the easygoing, smooth jazz of the South. Because the city was the home of a number of clubs, musicians had relatively few problems finding employment and supporting themselves in their craft. Musicians from all over the country came to the city and performed in front of crowds of jazz lovers in clubs and private parties. New Orleans also offered affordable housing for these musicians.
The origin of "The Big Easy" could also date back to Prohibition. During the 1920s, the federal government enforced strict laws concerning the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Violators erected speakeasies that sold illegal liquor, and the federal government conducted a number of raids throughout the country. However, the federal government unsuccessfully raided many establishments in New Orleans. The city became known as the big speakeasy because of its ability to outwit the government.
Although the above explanations are valid, wide use of the term did not seem to surface until the 1970s. Before the 1970s, New Orleans was known simply as "The Crescent City." In the 1970s, though, Betty Gillaud, a columnist at the Times Picayune of New Orleans, felt the need to counter the "I Love New York" hype. While residents of New York, "The Big Apple," led hectic, rushed lives, the people of New Orleans moved at a relaxed pace and had easygoing lives. Thus, "The Big Easy" was born.
The name got further legs when James Conaway wrote a novel of the same name, which was set in New Orleans. His novel served as a basis for the 1987 movie "The Big Easy." The name also became used for sports teams and other things in the city.
Like any popular culture reference, New Orleans transition to becoming known as "The Big Easy" is inconclusive and has become a local legend. It doesn't matter, though, because the term perfectly the suits the environment of the city and the festive nature of the people who live there. Even in times of tragedy, New Orleans still holds on to its friendly, relaxed quality and tells the world that the party must go on.