Golden Gater Online

[ Golden Gater Online - September 11, 1997 ]

Locals know best: only tourists call it 'Frisco'

Sam Cohen
Staff writer

It was two years ago at UC Berkeley when police officers approached two men sleeping under a tree and asked them for identification.

"We're from Frisco," the men said.

A moment later, they we're in handcuffs.

No, it's not illegal to say "Frisco," though some would like it to be. But the two men were wanted fugitives from Utah and they gave themselves away because the officers knew the odds of a San Franciscan saying "I'm from Frisco" are about as slim as surviving a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Which begs the question, what is it about the 'F-word' that can turn otherwise tolerant San Franciscans into word-usage vigilantes?

Otis Redding left his home in Georgia and headed for the "Frisco Bay," the lyrics read in his hit single "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay." It's a good thing he didn't mention this to many people before penning his song because he may have heard from someone like Dayna Nelson, a local freelance tour guide, who would have told him "only goobers and losers use that term."

And headed for the San Fran Bay?

Many credit Friscophobia to the recently deceased newspaper columnist and San Francisco icon, Herb Caen, whose first book, published in 1953, was "Don't Call it Frisco." Caen was considered by many to be the recognized authority on what was, and what was not, beneath the city's dignity, and to him, Frisco was intolerable.

"Not Frisco but San Francisco," he wrote in typical fashion in the San Francisco Chronicle. "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."

The word Frisco dates back to the gold rush , where forty-niners used it in the popular song of the time, a parody of Stephen Foster's "Oh Susanna:"

"I soon shall be in Frisco and there I'll look around,
And when I find the gold lumps there I'll pick them off the ground.
Oh, California, that's the life for me . . . "

The miner here shows his naivetè by thinking he will find riches in the city, instead of where the gold actually lies, buried in the foothills of the Sierra's 100 miles inland. This image of the Frisco user as a clueless outsider clearly applies to the Utah fugitives -- who, by the way, broke out of jail with less than a month to go in their sentences.

Another cause of the Frisco aversion may simply be the frivolous sound of the word. It's got a 'K' sound, and as playwright Neil Simon wrote in The Sunshine Boys; "Words with 'K' in them are funny."

Nevertheless, San Franciscans often find fault not in the word, but in its user. For example, Abbie Wolf, a civil rights worker, says "it's used car salesman-ish, like a guy who uses your name a lot in his sentences." We know what you mean Abbie.

Some Friscophobes find the word implies a false sense of familiarity, clearly unearned, as otherwise the person would know better.

"It's like your name is Rachmaninoff and people call you Rocky," says local psychiatrist Carla Perez, who finds it annoying but does not feel users should necessarily be prescribed Prozac for saying it.

Submit Frisco in a word search of Bay Area newspapers and you won't find many entries, but one byline comes up again and again. It's Stephanie Salter, a 21-year veteran reporter and columnist for the SF Examiner.

"I use it as a variant, in a harsher, crustier way," she says without apologies. " I grew up in the Midwest, where the servicemen of my father's generation used it. They shipped out of here and many didn't come back. To them Frisco was a magic word."

Salter's not alone in embracing Frisco, and she may be part of a growing backlash.

"Those who disapprove of Frisco are trying to own the city," says screenwriter Theo McKinney. "People should be able to call the city what they wish."

And even the man most responsible for the Frisco aversion may have had a change of heart toward the end. The day after the two men were arrested after telling the police they were from Frisco, a reporter covering the story in the Examiner wrote that Frisco is "the one sure word to identify them as tourists or rubes."

The next day, Herb Caen, of all people, perhaps thinking it had all gone too far, wrote in response: "Balderdash... the toughest guys on the old SF waterfront, neither rubes nor tourists, called it Frisco, and no effete journalist would have tried to correct them."

[ Golden Gater - September 11, 1997 ]