Saturday March 4, 2017
by Vinnee Tong, KQED
Just try dropping that word into conversation these days and see what kind of response you get. Chances are good the nickname will be met with a healthy dose of side-eye, a grimace or even a slap on the wrist.
Frisco is the nickname we love to hate.
Growing up, Rena relied on her friends to learn the local lingo, since her family spoke Chinese at home. One of the slang words her friends taught her was Frisco. She used it for years, until one day she slipped it in while talking to a co-worker.
“She stops me or she kind of looks at me, and says, ‘Wait, I thought people don’t like that name.’ And I said, ‘Really? I don’t think so,’ ” Rena recalls.
Suddenly, even though she’s a Bay Area native, she felt like an outsider. Ever since she’s wondered: Why all the hate?
If you ask around, people say it’s because it’s disrespectful, truncated, ugly-sounding or icky. Basically, they don’t think the name does the city justice. But we had to find out where these arguments originally came from.
A Mysterious Birth
Let’s start with some history. (Read a great timeline from Mother Jones here.)
Author Charles Fracchia, the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, tells me nobody knows exactly where the word originated, but he thinks Frisco got its start in the late 1800s — potentially from some drunkard making a contraction out of San Francisco.
He thinks one of the first written uses was maybe on some sheet music, like this example from 1897. Other people say it may have come earlier, perhaps during the Gold Rush.
Frisco’s use was probably in its heyday when the ports were strong here, around the time of World War II in the 1940s.
“It was kind of a working man’s period of time,” Fracchia says. “The port was thriving, you had lots of small manufactories here. Frisco is kind of a working man’s word.”
A Trashy Name for Classy City?
The other thing to know: Not long after people started using it, other people started hating it. They said only out-of-towners used it. Tourists, basically.
San Francisco’s self-proclaimed emperor — the Brit Joshua Norton — supposedly banned the use of Frisco in 1872 and said whoever used it would have to pay a $25 fine. But that has not been verified.
One person we do know hated the word: Herb Caen, the revered columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. When he wrote about the city, people listened.
“Herb Caen made San Francisco into almost a village,” Fracchia says. “By the fact that his columns were very popular. There was kind of a lingua franca about them.”
Caen came along after the city had grown from a dinky West Coast outpost into a Gold Rush boomtown with saloons and debauchery, and later into a city that looked more like the East Coast and European cities it wanted to imitate.
Caen wanted San Francisco to be more classy, more chic.
His book, “Don’t Call It Frisco,” came out in 1953.
The opening paragraph:
“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?”
Fracchia says Caen’s book ruined the nickname for a lot of people. People wanted to seem proper, and cultured, so they listened to Caen and shunned it.
“That’s when I think it became controversial or contentious,” Fracchia says.
Frisco is Loved, Too
Now, many people associate the word with an earlier generation. And rightly so.
Take Joey Wilson, co-owner of a tattoo shop in the Mission called … yep, Frisco Tattoo.
“My parents always called it that,” Wilson says. “They were blue-collar workers. It was just something that was instilled in me as a kid.”
Wilson remembers Frisco as a part of his childhood.
“When I was a little kid, I think I was 12 or 13, there was a bike shop called Frisco Choppers,” Wilson says. “I’d race down there on the bus, down Valencia Street, just to buy a T-shirt that said Frisco in big, bold letters because that was the coolest.”
Today he’s in the Hells Angels — the Frisco chapter.
His wife, Lilah Wilson, says they have lots of friends who love Frisco as much as they do.
“A lot of our friends are kind of small-business owners in the city here actually, and really are owners of the name Frisco,” she says. “We had Frisco Boxing, we have 415 Clothing, we had Frisco Choppers years back. Just kind of the root and background of that name and took it far, with T-shirts and tattoos and blew up that name.”
And now Joey Wilson wants to know why Caen’s opinion should matter more than his. After all, Caen was born in Sacramento.
“So that’s the question — why does it upset you to call it Frisco?” he says. “Give us a reason. And who are you to tell us what we can and can’t do? I’m from here. I’m born and raised here, so I think I got rights to call it whatever I want.”
Working on this story one day, I grabbed a Lyft and got to talking with the driver, a guy named Lorenzo Beasley.
“I grew up on the bottom of the city, a small neighborhood called Visitacion Valley,” Beasley says. “I think more of the urban community, like blacks or Hispanics in the city, those people always grew up using that word.”
Beasley says you hear it in Hunters Point, Lakeview, the Fillmore, Potrero Hill and especially the Mission.
I asked him who doesn’t like Frisco.
“It’s like a higher class of people, I guess,” Beasley says. “People who stay in Nob Hill and stuff. They look at it like slang, so they’re not really with it. It’s definitely a bit of snob thing involved.”
For Beasley, whether you use Frisco says what neighborhood you’re from.
Stanford linguist Teresa Pratt echoes that. She says that when you’re talking about language and word choice, like nicknames, you’re virtually always talking about money and power.
“Institutions or people who have power have an interest in maintaining that the way they speak is the right way to speak,” Pratt says. “Because it helps them. Because it’s coupled with this ideology that’s really widespread, that there’s a right way to speak, that there’s a way to speak that gets you ahead.”
Pratt says word choice is like a signal.
“Language as cultural capital, right?” she says. “It’s something like knowing exactly where to put your forks at the end of a meal.”
Nicknames are even more like that. Knowing which one to use and which one not to use tells people where you belong. Which brings us back to Rena, our question-asker, who suddenly felt out of place because she was called out for using Frisco.
“For someone to correct you on that, it’s kind of like, ‘Ugh, did I have it wrong this whole time?’ ” she says.
Well, we have some good news for Rena. The famous Herb Caen eventually flip-flopped on Frisco a couple of times in the 1990s. It turns out we’ve built our anti-Frisco bias on some shaky ground.
And, there are a some admirable bootstrap efforts to bring it back.
SFGate predicted awhile ago that the young and hip would revive it. Joe Eskenazi wrote for SF Weekly that it’s mostly old white people who don’t like it. And Buzzfeed launched a “Call It Frisco” campaign last year.
Join the movement?