Now, I know that title alone will already have raised the hackles of many readers from the City.
But it is a rhetorical question, believe me.
I can state without equivocation that I have NEVER uttered the word myself, apart, of course, from when singing along with Otis Redding. Nor, by the way, have I ever said “San Fran”, which I find an even uglier term.
I prefer to use its full name – and why wouldn’t I, it’s a beautiful name – or the City.
Now that might mark me out as a long term native, at least a white one, but I’m not, as you will gather from the strapline above, even if you weren’t aware before.
So what’s a crazy limey doing stepping into a debate that has raged among San Franciscans since Emperor Norton first proclaimed that “whoever, after due and proper warning, shall be heard to utter the abominable word Frisco, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of High Misdemeanor”?
I suppose it’s just another symptom of my affection and fascination for the City. And perhaps, as an Englishman, I might be able to provide some perspective.
Emperor Norton’s claim that the word had “no linguistic or other warrant” was not strictly true. It derives from both old Icelandic and Middle English. Frithsoken meant a refuge, sanctuary, safe harbour – all words which would appear to fit San Francisco’s image and purpose perfectly, even to this day.
Interestingly too, it might derive from the Spanish and Italian word for a romp, gambol or caper, a possible sailors’ reference to the activities of the Barbary Coast in the late nineteenth century.
Immigrants during the Gold Rush sang of finding “gold lumps” on the ground when they got to Frisco, and generations of sailors, soldiers, longshoreman and other blue collar workers since have called it by that name.
That said, the view of the self-styled “Emperor of These United States” received powerful endorsement in the following century. At Christmas 1907 the ladies of the Outdoor Art League formed an Anti-Frisco Committee, “for the purpose of discouraging the use of the term, “Frisco”.
The punishment for those “possessed of the poor taste to use this obnoxious term”?
To wear diamonds for breakfast.
After enduring the fourth reference to Frisco in his testimony from Hal R. Hobbs, a Los Angeles automobile dealer in a divorce case of April 1918, Judge Mogan warned him to desist because:
No one refers to San Francisco…..by that title except people from Los Angeles. I am the Chairman of the County Council of Defense, and I warn you that you stand in danger of being interred as an alien enemy.
And most famously, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, published a book of his newspaper columns in 1953 entitled Don’t Call it Frisco. He implored that you should:
Caress each Spanish syllable, salute our Italian saint. Don’t say Frisco and don’t say San-Fran-Cis-Co. That’s the way Easterners, like Larry King, pronounce it. It’s more like SanfrnSISco.
On another occasion he wrote:
Don’t call it Frisco – it’s SAN Francisco, because it was named after St. Francis of Assisi. And because “Frisco” is a nickname that reminds the city uncomfortably of the early, brawling, boisterous days of the Barbary Coast and the cribs and sailors who were shanghaied. And because “Frisco” shows disrespect for a city that is now big and proper and respectable. And because only tourists call it “Frisco”, anyway, and you don’t want to be taken for a tourist, do you?
The reverence with which Caen was held ensured that such a view held sway for a long time, and judging by the comments on internet forums, still receives vehement support to this day.
During Caen’s heyday, the word continued to figure strongly in the public consciousness. Movies, including Fog Over Frisco starring Bette Davis in 1934 and stage productions like Hello, Frisco, Hello nine years later, celebrated the name. In addition to Otis’s (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, Pink Floyd delivered a live album entitled Darkness Over Frisco and the Youngbloods, the band that gave us one of the great anthems of the hippie movement of the late sixties, Get Together, could also sing about going to Frisco-o-o.
Beat poets Kenneth Rexroth and Bob Kaufman referred to Frisco in their work, Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road talked of heading to Frisco, and John Lee Hooker, another revered San Francisco cultural icon, was one of many blues musicians to record Frisco Blues.
Which brings me to another dimension that is often overlooked in the contemporary debate about the use of the word. Most of San Francisco’s African-American residents have historically referred to their city as Frisco, and there are innumerable hip hop and rap songs with it in the title, including Frisco is the Bay, In a Frisco Minute and Frisco Niggers Ain’t No Punks.
And Caen actually changed his position late in life when remarking that:
I was never sure about the reasoning behind the objection, even while voicing it. Other old-timers don’t know either. They stumble around with words like “undignified” and “bawdy” and “coarse”, as if there’s anything wrong with a city being any of those, which every city is. Maybe it has to do with San Francisco being “the city of St Francis”, and there is no St. Frisco. My recollection is that it’s a waterfront-born nickname that the sailors used lovingly, back when this was the best (i.e. wildest) port of call in the Pacific.
The debate continues on social media to this day and stirs the emotions of natives and long term residents as much as do issues such as the tech explosion, dog poop and the role of Tim Lincecum in the Giants’ rotation.
Several websites and blogs celebrate the name, exemplified by the Facebook page, RAISED IN FRISCO which proclaims that “They say don’t call it Frisco, real San Franciscans don’t call it Frisco, shit we got Frisco runnin thru our blood, “Raised in Frisco!”.
So why all the fuss when the term still seems so embedded in people’s minds?
And does it really matter anyway?
Well, some will say it does.
A commonly held belief among its opponents is that it is a term only used by outsiders, by people who don’t know any better, by that increasingly used hate term of today – tourists. How would New Yorkers or residents of Chicago feel if people called their cities Nork and Chico, they say?
Nicknames are intended to reflect a prominent feature of its subject, not merely a lazy contraction of the full name. Frisco denotes a lack of respect, a wilful dismissal of the place and its people. It makes you sound like a doofus” as one, now defunct, website claimed.
And there are already thirteen places in the U.S. already called Frisco, though none in California.
Perhaps the The Bold Italic online magazine and store should have (almost) the last word in its characteristically wry and forthright manner:
San Franciscans have a reputation for being uptight jerks about the nickname. Don’t play into that stereotype. They’ll eventually notice you never call it that anyway.
Whatever the merits of the issue. I still won’t be calling it Frisco or San Fran or S.F., as much on aesthetic grounds as any other.
But then I’m not from San Francisco.