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Posts Tagged ‘Don’t Call It Frisco’


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.

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Washington may have had its Art Buchwald, London its J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber”) and Dublin the mercurial Myles Na gCopaleen, but few cities can have been as fortunate as San Francisco in having a chronicler (no pun intended) as prolific, urbane and popular as Herb Caen who wrote in its daily newspapers about life in the city, for almost sixty years.  With more than 16,000 columns of over 1,000 words each, lifelong friend, author and restaurateur, Barnaby Conrad, estimated that if “laid end to end, his columns would stretch 5.6 miles, from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge”.

Herbert Eugene Caen was born on 3rd April 1916 in Sacramento, though he claimed to have been conceived on the Marina in San Francisco during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition as his parents spent the summer there “complaining about the cold”.

He joined the Sacramento Union as a sports reporter in 1932 on graduating from high school.  Four years later he was hired to write a radio column for the San Francisco Chronicle, beginning an association that was to last for 50 of the next 61 years.

On the scrapping of the radio column he persuaded the editor, Paul Smith, that he could write a daily column on the city, and  It’s News to Me duly debuted on 5th July 1938, appearing thereafter for six days a week.

When the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1942 he joined the Air Force, assigned to communications, and reached the rank of captain.  Returning to his Chronicle column, he continued to record and comment upon the foibles of local government and personailities.

Caen often referred to San Francisco as Baghdad-by-the-Bay,  a term he coined to reflect the city’s exotic multiculturism.  A collection of his essays bearing the same title was published in 1949, going through seven printings.  In 1953 he published the book Don’t Call it Frisco after an Examiner news item of the same name on 3rd April 1918 when Judge Mogan, presiding in a divorce case, stated that “No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles”.  Emperor Norton had previously raged against the use of the term and issued one of his imperial proclamations to that effect.

However, a year later, Caen left the Chronicle for higher paid work at the San Francisco Examiner, for which he worked until 1958 when he was persuaded to return to his former employer on the promise of a better salary.  His “homecoming” column was published on 15th January of that year.

In 1976 he published One Man’s San Francisco, a fine collection of some of the best writing from his columns.  In 1988, the fiftieth anniversary of the column was marked by a special edition of the Chronicle’s “Sunday Punch”.  At the age of 75 he decided to slow down by reducing his output from six to five days a week!

Caen was hugely popular and a highly influential figure in San Francisco society.  He was described by the Chronicle as a “major wit and unwavering liberal who could be charming, outspoken and, at times, disagreeable.”

He called his work “three-dot journalism”, in reference to the ellipses by which he separated his column’s short items, all composed on his “Loyal Royal” typewriter.

His writing was imbued with a gentle, dry wit and an intimate knowledge of the politics, society and culture of his adopted city and the wider Bay Area. Hardly a show, party or any other significant event in San Francisco was complete without Caen’s gregarious presence, and his clever, sometimes acerbic, comments on it the next morning in his column.  Conrad said that “he seemed to know everyone in the world; he somehow made them honorary San Franciscans and let us, his readers, have the privilege of knowing them, too”.

His witticisms and plays on words would fill another ten features, but here are a few:

  • “the trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around”;
  • “I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there”;
  • “cockroaches and socialites are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything”; and
  • “the only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever”.

The Bay Bridge was “the car-strangled spanner”, City Hall “Silly Hall” and Berkeley was “Berserkeley”.

Whilst many of his invented words have passed into history, others have become not only synonymous with San Francisco but entered the everyday language.  On 2nd April 1958, in a Pocketful of Notes, he reported on a party hosted by 50 “Beatniks” which spread to “over 250 bearded cats and kits”.  This is the first known use of the word.  And during the Summer of Love in 1967 he contributed more than anybody to popularising the term “hippie”.

In 1996 he was the recipient of a special award from the Pulitzer Prize Board which acclaimed his “extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of the city”.  On 14th June of the same year 75,000 people, including Walter Cronkite, Robin Williams, Willie Mays, Don  Johnson and Mayor Willie Brown who presided over the event, celebrated Herb Caen Day.

He espoused many liberal causes over his career, including a life long opposition to the death penalty.  He was also one of the first mainstream newspaper men to question the Vietnam War.  But it is to his beloved San Francisco that we return for one of his most passionate campaigns, namely to have the hideous and excessively busy Embarcadero Freeway, or “Dambarcadero” as he called it, demolished.  Success came, but from an unexpected source.  The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged it so severely that the decision was taken to pull it all down.  A three mile sweep  of the Embarcadero is now named “Herb Caen Way” in his honour.  The wide promenade is the most eastern street in San Francisco, curving round its northeast corner, proceeding along the waterfront, and ending near AT & T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, the team Caen adored.

Despite a terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, Caen continued to write almost until his death on 1st February 1997, though his output understandably shrunk over time. His funeral six days later was held in the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, attended by 250 people with hundreds more outside listening to the hymns and eulogies over loudspeaker.

Caen had willed to the city a fireworks display which was given in Aquatic Park in front of Ghiradelli Square, concluding with a pyrotechnic image of a typewriter on the bay.  This tribute was attended by many of his friends and fans, who gathered on Herb Caen Way… on the Embarcadero, lit candles protected from the wind by dixie cups, and walked north along the waterfront to Aquatic Park.

And all this for a local hack!

John Steinbeck wrote that he “made a many-faceted character of the city of San Francisco….It is very probable that Herb’s city will be the one that is remembered”.

But the last fitting words should be left to Caen himself:

“One day if I go to heaven…I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco'”.

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