I am, of course, aware of the loathing expressed by some denizens of San Francisco for the abbreviation “Frisco,” but I always wondered about it; now, thanks to Vinnee Tong’s KQED piece on the topic, I know. The nickname itself originated in the late 19th century, and: “Not long after people started using it, other people started hating it. They said only out-of-towners used it.” But the mass campaign against it apparently started with Herb Caen, “the revered columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle,” whose book Don’t Call It Frisco came out in 1953. Charles Fracchia, the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, 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.”
But then Tong quotes people who have nothing against it, like Joey Wilson, co-owner of Frisco Tattoo in the Mission: “My parents always called it that. They were blue-collar workers. It was just something that was instilled in me as a kid.”
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.”
That’s an exemplary way to handle the story: present both sides, but give added weight to the opinion of someone who deals with this stuff professionally, a linguist. And “knowing exactly where to put your forks at the end of a meal” is a perfect comparison: nothing wrong with that if that’s important to you, but not a moral imperative. Thanks, Eric!