Don’t Call It Frisco

pink floyd frisco

There’s a laundromat in the city’s Hayes Valley called the Don’t Call It Frisco Laundromat. The name quotes an admonition you will hear often from a certain generation of locals, who will tell you the word grates like chalk on a blackboard. The taboo started, or at least took hold, in 1953 with the publication of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen’s first book, entitled, well, Don’t Call it Frisco. Caen is much beloved but the truth is he was a bit of an elitist; he had a dogmatic and imperious streak. (I know — back in the day I sometimes had lunch with his power claque.)

“Not Frisco but San Francisco,” Caen prescribed. “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.” (No one pointed out that the command to caress each syllable and to elide them was contradictory.)

And a generation of independent and free-spirited San Franciscans meekly complied with the columnist’s mandate. Perhaps they were motivated by the suspicion that their city might not in fact be in the same league with New York City after all, so they sought to sweep their underclass underpinnings under the rug, to turn their back on their rough-and-tumble past.

But there’s a long tradition of calling the city Frisco. (The term frisco, meaning a port where ships could be repaired, goes back to Middle English.) Immigrants during the Gold Rush sang:

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

Even in Caen’s day Otis Redding sang that he was leaving his home in Georgia and heading for the Frisco Bay. The Youngbloods sang:

I used to love to watch her dance
That Grizzly Bear
I guess she’s gone to Frisco-o-o
To dance it there

james cagney in the frisco kidThe poet Kenneth Rexroth, another contemporary of Caen’s, called the city Frisco, and the beat poet Bob Kaufman wrote a series of “Frisco” poems. Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in On the Road, says he is heading for “Frisco.”

Today a lot of people are looser and less uptight that about the city’s handle than was once the case. There’s a tattoo parlor in the Mission district called Frisco Tattoo. A CD of local bands is called Frisco Styles. The Notorious B.I.G. rapped that he was “Sippin’ Crist-o with some freaks from Frisco.” Columnist Stephanie Salter uses the term Frisco regularly. A Barry Bonds fan t-shirt is emblazoned with the slogan Frisco Grooves.

The local hiphop movement called Yay Area hyphy uses Frisco as a “term of endearment.” For example, Frontline’s Now You Know contains these lyrics:

Wah wha wha wha, thats Oakland
Yee yee yee yee, thats Richmond
Hey, hey, thats Frisco
And if you aint from the bay now yo ass know

Letting go of silly, tight-assed prescriptions like Caen’s is a sign that the city is coming into its own, confident enough in itsself not to have to monitor how people refer to it. 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.”

Do I call it Frisco? Well, no, not really, except sometimes in fun. Which I hope is the spirit of this site.

So don’t call it Frisco. Or do call it Frisco (but be prepared for some rolled eyes). Or, as some folks do, you could just call it “the ‘Sco.” That way you’re covered — you’re cool.

The choice is yours.

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  1. It’s time to take back the name Frisco!

  2. bill hoffland

    No one from Frisco calls it “Frisco” only “outsiders”

  3. I know, Bill, but maybe it’s time to loosen up.

  4. I lived in The City for almost 20 years. It’s never time to loosen up on this subject…

    Only SF wannabes who come from elsewhere call it Frisco…

    And that was long before the advent of Mr. Caen. You may have been with his coterie, I spent time with the man himself in his home on a number of occasions.

  5. George, if it makes you feel better I agree you probably knew Herb Caen better than I did, since I didn’t know him well at all. (What’s more, I didn’t particularly like him.)

    Also feel free to call me an SF-wannabe, if it makes you happy. I’ve lived in the Bay Area continuously since the mid-1970s.

    I actually hardly ever call the city Frisco, but thinking this is an important issue seems silly to me.

    What I dislike more is “San-Fran.”

  6. “No one from Frisco calls it “Frisco” only “outsiders” LOL too many natives to count call it Frisco….nobody cares…call it what you want, just don’t call it San Fran.

  7. Gianna

    It’s “the City”

  8. Mishee

    Does anyone here realize that Herb Caen probably got the idea from Emperor Norton?

    Or am I the only one who reads the history books? (well, ok, wikipedia, but STILL…)

  9. I grew up in San Francisco, and I don’t get all rude about it when someone says “Frisco” or “San Fran”, but these are not really the proper nicknames for the city. Most locals refer to the city as “San Francisco”, “SF” or “The City”. Outsiders keep insisting to call it “Frisco” which does tend to get a bit annoying. I doubt that locals of Portland would enjoy their city being called “Porty-port”, or New Yorkers agreeing to their city being re-named to “The York”. It’s like someone constantly calling you by a nickname that’s not your name. For example, people that insist to call me “Johnny”, “Jonathan” or “Jon Jon”, even after I’ve explained that I don’t go by those names. It’s not that big of a deal, but still can get a bit annoying. 🙂

  10. one of my close aussi friend was in town the other day and he reffered to the city as “San Frank” ..
    and i didn’t know what how to react .. 😐

  11. Mitch

    The Frisco hate goes back way further than 1953, I’m afraid. Emperor Norton himself issued the decree in 1872 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 a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”

    And that dude was an Emperor, sooo…

  12. jdkiernan

    Thanks for opening the window and letting some air into this greenhouse town.

    Herb Caen was known by the cab drivers as a cheapskate who tried to cadge free rides because he was a big deal. In spite of all the money he made. Most cab drivers know that nobody’s really a big deal.

  13. jack barry

    Big, famous cities need short “nicknames”

    “New York”, Boston, get a pass, because their proper names have only two easy to spit out syllables…

    Four syllables is two, too many, I think. “Chi-town” works for Chicago. “Philly” for Philadelphia… “N’ahlin” for New Or-leans”…. etc.

    To get all mad about “Frisco”? ( we should believe that this is the second “F word”? )

  14. You mention people who do use Frisco as if that justifies it. Many well-known authors call Asians Oriental but that doesn’t make it right. Instead of negating a people’s sentiment for your own hegemony, learn to respect the culture you’re invading and please don’t call it frisco.

  15. That’s a very self-righteous attitude, Daniel — you seem to feel appointed as a spokesman for Bay Area culture.

    I really don’t care very much about this issue, and I have lived in the Bay Area for thirty-five years.

  16. The fact that you think that the disdain for the term Frisco originated in the 50’s completely destroys any credibility your post might have had. Just google “Don’t call it Frisco” and you’ll quickly see it dates back to the late 1800’s. Or read about the history of the city and you’d know about Emperor Norton. (Just like Mitch said.) Although google did yield an article about a judge in 1918 admonishing a Los Angeleno for using the term in court: