Back in 2003 (in my thousandth post), in a discussion of the general phenomenon of place names with and without “the,” I mentioned the fact that Southern Californians use the definite article when referring to freeways (“the 405”), and there was some discussion of that in the thread. Now Kári Tulinius sends me a link to a Washington Monthly discussion by Kevin Drum, who provides “the long-awaited semi-official explanation for this phenomenon. It’s official because it appears in an academic journal, but only semi because I remain a little skeptical anyway”:

The article is called “The” Freeway in Southern California, by Grant Geyer, and it appeared as a note in the summer 2001 issue of American Speech. His story starts at about the time that LA’s original five freeways were being built in the 30s and 40s:

In about 1941, just before the completion of the first of the famous freeways, intercity traffic came into Los Angeles on the north-south axis on U.S. 99, U.S. 101, or California Route 1…. Before the freeways were built, locals generally preferred the old, time-honored street or road names instead of numbers in conversation. So for ‘U.S. 99’ they said San Fernando Road because the highway followed that particular named street, as far as the distant end of “town.” Likewise, ‘U.S. 101’ was Ventura Boulevard and ‘Route 1’ was Pacific Coast Highway….Route 1 or Route 101 was not used in town.

When the federal interstate system grew up, the southern California area got its share of funding and road numbers…. However, for the first 20 years of the interstate system, no one used the numerical designations…. The interstate routes around Los Angeles were called the Ventura Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Santa Ana Freeway, the Golden State Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, the Glendale Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway, the Harbor Freeway, the Riverside Freeway, and the Long Beach Freeway.

….The strange-sounding usage of the plus number, as in the 118, was the natural result of an amazing proliferation of new, minor interstate cutovers, extensions, and bypasses that began about 1975…. [It] was even more pronounced when new major Los Angeles interstates sprang up without having any precursors and without being extensions of earlier, nonnumerical freeways. The first one I remember in this category was the 605 Freeway.

… My objection is that this is all pretty ad hoc. Basically, Geyer is saying that other big cities had named highways too, but they just didn’t have quite as many as LA, so the never caught on. But if all your highways have names, and that’s the original source of the, then why would it matter how many you had? You either get accustomed to referring to them by name or you don’t, and if you do, you’d be just as likely as LA to evolve to using the with a numerical designator too. But nobody else did.

An interesting theory and a cogent objection. (With regard to NYC, a commenter in the linked Washington Monthly thread says, quite correctly, “New Yorkers never bother to learn the numerical designators. I drove there daily for years, and I still couldn’t tell you what number the Van Wyck is, or the Major Deegan, or almost any of them for that matter.”) I throw the floor open to suggestions.


  1. I will be very interested to hear what others think on this. I’ve never been anywhere near SoCal, but I still find saying “take the 405” easier than “take 405”. Then again, I’m a Kiwi, and we identify outlanders by their failure to use the articles when using the English names for our two major islands, so I’m probably not qualified to judge.

  2. In England everybody uses “the” with numbered streets, thus one would say “take the M1 to London”, never “take M1 to London”.

  3. icegreentea says

    Up here in Canada (I live in Toronto), we use ‘the as well. We have a mix of names here. A couple of highways are still called by name (the QEW (Queen Elizabeth’s Way), the DVP (Don Valley Parkway), etc etc). The 400 series super highways that popped up in the last few decades are always called ‘the ‘ (even though all of them of have official full names). Finally, we have some pre-400 series highways that are just called ‘Highway 7’ or ‘Highway 10’.

  4. I’m Canadian as well, and icegreentea is correct.

  5. Which means that any special pleading that applies to L.A. had better apply to Tronno as well, or the theory goes down among the dead men.
    (I first ran into this Torontonian phenomenon in the novels of Tanya Huff, in which the city is an important minor character, sort of like San Francisco in Armistead Maupin.)

  6. Mike Magee says

    I am from Orange County California and I discovered this difference when I went to school in San Luis Obispo which is half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Half the people were referring to “the 101” as just “101” and I discovered it was due to where they grew up. My explanation was similar to Mr. Geyer’s: I had lived my whole life either next to “the Ventura” freeway or “the San Diego” freeway. It sounds very odd to me when people leave out the definite article.

  7. I grew up in Southern California and my relatives are mostly Texan – we all use “the” before major numerical highways. It’ve heard suggestion that this may be a Southwestern phenomenon?
    If it helps the investigation at all, when I say “the 101” in my head, I’m thinking “the 101 freeway.” When I hear people drop the “the” it feels to like they’re dropping reference to the implied object – the freeway – which makes the number sound like an abstract set of units.
    I hate to be provincial, but do people really say “take 5” as driving directions?

  8. Yes.

  9. rootlesscosmo says

    “Take 5?” Sure. “What route did you take from LA?” “We were in a hurry so we took 5,” or “I-5.” Here in the Bay Area the standard usage is to omit the article, as can be confirmed by listening to local TV traffic reports. And Geyer’s explanation seems shaky, because US 101 (or just “101”) is also “the Bayshore Freeway,” often called that, and the oldest East Bay freeway was “the Nimitz,” but the article didn’t carry over to the numerical designation. My hypothesis is that both usages were equally likely back in the formative years, and sheer chance determined that one would prevail in Southern California and the other in Northern.

  10. Agreeing with that parenthetical comment about New York. Even the big green directional signs there omit numbers in favor of the names of bridges and roads. If you’re trying to get the hell out, the only hint you’ll get of a destination rather than a thoroughfare is “New England,” thataway.

  11. Huh. There are lots of native speakers of Californian up here in Oregon, but I have never heard anyone say “the I-5” or “the 5.” It’s always “the freeway” or “I-5.”

  12. My wife, who grew up in California, uses the “the” in front of numeric highway names, and it has rubbed off on me, though I grew up here in Illinois and had not used that usage before. It now sounds like an article is missing if it’s left off.

  13. I think the traffic radio announcers determined usage, since commuters are always listening to these same few people to try to find which route sucks least. The radio personalities’ usage could be random, or determined by station policy, or by using the definite article to sound more folksy and Southern.

  14. Arthur Crown says

    Since I always took the subway, my memory of Robert Moses’ NY road system is from the radio. There was “the Northbound Major Deegan” and “the Southbound Major Deegan”, like two Jekyll & Hyde characters. The Northbound Major Deegan was the really bad one, he was always in some kind of trouble, but maybe I was just listening in the afternoon.

  15. “We were in a hurry so we took 5”
    Even though I know this is just a regional shibboleth, suggesting you took a short break because you were in a hurry kind of makes me want to argue for the correctness of adding an article.

  16. mollymooly says

    The evidence from outside the USA (and I can add Ireland to the “the” users) suggests “the” is the default, and it is the deviant regional US phenomenon of “the”-lessness which requires explanation.

  17. I live in Columbus, OH and am a relative newcomer to the area. But there are certain things you can get away with. Even though no one calls one route the freeway, even though it’s clearly marked a freeway, everyone calls it 315, it’s state route number. However, there is a road here called Polaris Parkway, named for the mall that it serves, and you can get away with calling that “the parkway.” Of course, Columbus is not that incredibly large of a city, so there is really only one parkway worth mentioning.

  18. Some geoforensics via Google:
    Scanning the major north-south (odd-numbered) interstates in the US, starting on the east coast and working west, the the results for “took.the.[number].south” versus “took.[number].south” are as follows:
    95 – 1, 82 (so 1 “the”, 82 no “the”)
    81 – 0, 30
    77 – 0, 20
    75 – 1, 15
    65 – 0, 16
    57 – 6, 6
    35 – 2, 32
    25 – 0, 8
    15 – 3, 68
    5 – 9, 81 (California north-south interstate)
    And the same analysis on two north-south California highways:
    395 – 3, 21 (California inland highway)
    101 – 71, 121 (California coastal highway)
    (The results include some extraneous entries, but not many. The 6-6 tie for 57 is not significant because of scarce data.)
    So I suggest that this is largely a Californiaism, and an extreme coastal one at that, applying to state highways more so than the interstates.
    Enterprising researchers are invited to do further analysis on California’s east-west state roads to distinguish NoCal from SoCal usage.

  19. Crown, Arthur says

    Just for the record, I know you’re interested, Norway doesn’t use the article. But on the other hand, they practically don’t have any roads (and the ones they do have they’re putting underground).

  20. Growing up in suburban Chicago it was ‘Route 14’ and ‘Route 12’ (pronounced ‘rout’, not ‘root’), never just ’14’ or ’12’; to get in and out of the city you took the Kennedy, the Edens, the Ike (Eisenhower), or the Dan Ryan (aka ‘the damned Ryan’), or even LSD, but never ‘the’ LSD…

  21. The Dan Ryan, the Eisenhower, the Skyway, the Bishop Ford, yes, and in Chicago it’s the “expressway”, not the freeway. But the Eisenhower extension is also the 290 extension-a road that is only within the Chicago suburb area.
    In South Dakota, everyone knows you can take highway fourteen (or just “fourteen”) all the way to Minneapolis or even Chicago. “Twenty-nine” (interstate #29) goes north and south through Sioux Falls, and I-90 (eye-ninety) will take you to the Black Hills.
    If you live in Minneapolis, 35W (thirty-five doubleyou) goes north and south, mostly south, and you can take it to 80 or eye-80, (I-80) which runs the length of Iowa.
    When I teach names of countries, I tell my beginning English students to use “the” for plurals: the Netherlands, the United States, the Philippines (Islands), but not “The Canada” or “The Mexico”. But in Arabic you put “the” in front of almost everything–Jordan is il-urdun الأردن (“the earth”, I think).
    Oh yes, and for those Illinoisians who like to leave the main highway and travel on historic 66, you still can get your kicks on Route 66 (pronounced rooot) not on the route 66.

  22. Arthur Crown says

    Nijma: Jordan is il-urdun الأردن (“the earth”, I think)
    Jord is ‘earth’ in Norwegian, so they probably got the word from the Vikings.

  23. not “The Canada” or “The Mexico”
    Is “The Gambia” the last holdout of “The Ukraine,” “The Sudan,” “The Congo,” …?

  24. Crown, A. says

    The Ivory Coast

  25. Crown, A. says

    The United Kingdom, it must be something to do with adjectives rather than plurals.

  26. mollymooly says

    El Salvador, formerly just Salvador, is bucking the trend.

  27. In case no one has mentioned this yet, just as “the 5” is short for “the 5 freeway”, plain old “5” probably used to be short for “interstate 5” or “highway 5”. (Is “the M2” short for “the M2 motorway” or something?) I’ll hazard that all English speakers would use a “the” before “5 freeway” and not use one before “highway/interstate 5”. Maybe the regional variation in the short forms just reflects differences in preferred long forms.

  28. it’s funny, I think I’ve only ever heard highway names in conjunction with the definite article. I was born in Toronto, grew up in Southern Ontario and England, and currently live in Montreal. If I were to describe any numerical motorway I would call it either ‘the 401’ or ‘highway 401’ if I were being a bit more formal. Or else use the colloquial name – here in Montreal two of the major routes are almost universally referred to in English as ‘the Metropolitan’ or (my personal favourite) ‘the T-Can’ and I find it nearly impossible to remember the proper numbers when I’m looking for the correct exit on one of my rare automotive adventures.

  29. I use “the” with numbered freeways that are in California, but not with freeways that are anywhere else. I probably came up with this rule as a result of being a non-Californian who knows a lot of Californians.

  30. I thought it was interesting. From an AskMetaFilter post:

    It’s in Los Angeles near where the 101 and 5 freeways meet.

    And not “the 101 and the 5.”

  31. Charles Perry says

    Well, Arabic uses the definite article in a lot of contexts that English doesn’t, but, apart from Al-Urdunn (from Yarden, the Hebrew name of the Jordan river), all the Arab countries between al-‘Iraq and al-Jazair (Algeria) omit the article: Suriya, Lubnan, Misr (Egypt), Libiya, Tunis. However, the colloquial name of Syria, al-Sham, uses it.

  32. I live in central California. I would never use “the 5”, and a few of my friends from San Francisco do, which I find curious.
    Freeway names have long(-ish) and short versions. The long-ish versions would be “I-5” or “Highyway 101”. The short versions, used when context has already been established, are simply the numbers (“take 132 west, then skip 5 on your way to 580 west…”).
    It appears that Geyer is attributing the use of “the” to the fact that freeways were previously given names in relation to streets, not to the fact that Los Angeles has lots of freeways. And I find this to be a very sensible explanation.

  33. I’m not sure if this helps or makes it worse, but here’s how grammarian Betty Azar (Fundamentals of English Grammar) explains how to use “the”:

    The speaker uses the (not a, 0, or some) when the speaker and the listener are thinking about the same specific thing(s) or person(s).
    Example #1: Did you feed the dog?
    The speaker and the listener are thinking about the same specific dog. The listener knows which dog the speaker is talking about: the dog that they own, the dog that they feed every day. There is only one dog that the speaker could possibly be talking about.
    Example #2: I had a banana and an apple.
    I gave the banana to Mary.
    In this example, the speaker uses the when s/he mentions a noun the second time.
    First mention: I had a banana
    Second mention: I gave the banana
    In the second mention, the listener now knows which banana the speaker is talking about: the banana the speaker had (not the banana John had, not the banana in that bowl)

    So how about this.
    -Local highways seem to almost always use “the”. There is only one and everybody knows which one they are.
    -Cross country highways use the number or the word “highway” in front of the number. Maybe this is because there is more than one of them, the one coming into town and the one going out of town. For instance, if you are in Minneapolis, there is the Highway 14 going to Chicago and the Highway 14 going to South Dakota, and probably other bits of highway 14 you can pick up in various suburbs.
    -California uses “the” because it is on the coast and the roads can’t go any further.
    Okay, I know it doesn’t explain everything, but come up with something better.
    You can use the same theory for the names of Arab countries too. Al-araq (Iraq),as-Sadeeya (Saudi), al-Yemen, al-Sudan, al-Bahrain, al-Eemiraht (Emirates), and al-Kuwait, are very specific places either close to holy sites or on the coastline, or built up from ancient cities like es-Shems (Damascus) or al-Quds (Jerusalem). Then you have places that are in the middle of trade routes, like Lubnan & Suria, (Lebanon and Syria), and Tunis, Libia (Libya was even once a generic term for all of Africa), Ooman, Albania, Falastine (Palestine), Qatar, Misr (Egypt) and the definite article gets dropped, until you get to the west coast of Africa, and there, like California, al-Magreb (Morocco) gets a definite article.
    I did leave out the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (Al-Mamlakah al-Urdunniyyah al-Hāšimiyyahالمملكة الأردنية الهاشميه), which although in the center of MY universe, has always historically been positioned between empires and superpowers. I think the definite article al- there might have something to do with the possessive though.
    near where the 101 and 5 freeways meet
    couldn’t this have something to do with the compound object, sort of like “give me the salt and pepper shaker” instead of “the salt and the pepper shaker”–or “the hammer and sickle” instead of “the hammer and the sickle”…does the Skull and Bones (Yale frat) fit here?

  34. I live in Portland, Oregon, and in examining my own usage I am delighted to find that I say “the 5” and “the 101,” but never “the 84” or “the 99.” “The 205,” which is a bend off the 5, is a tossup. The first two roads go to California, and I expect that I have heard them referred to by many a Californian.

  35. The mention of the radio announcements shouldn’t be underestimated in an agglomeration as automobile-derived and media-inundated as Southern California, then and now. The corresponding increase in radio advertising alongside the expanding highway system may have played a part. A savvy ad man would have used the familiar “the”, knowing the potential client more likely to drive to a business via a route he was persuaded he already knew. Better to tell them that Acme Tire Shop is located off “the” freeway, reinforcing the sense of deja connu. My guess is that municipal services such as police, fire and ambulance, each who rely on accurate road directions, quickly adopted the same pattern of including “the” for additional clarity in their dispatches.

  36. This is an old discussion and still relevant to us Californians and others. I grew up in the Midwest. We would take (US) “Highway 65 to Des Moines. Later we took “Interstate-35”. We’d talk about rural route 1 and state highway 18, and we never used “the”.

    Living now in the San Francisco Bay Area, the locals do pretty much the same thing. If you have time, you’ll talk about “Interstate 680”. With less time, it’s “Take I-680” or just “Take 680”. Using the definite article takes longer, sounds affected, and certainly means you’re not from around here. We get as much a chuckle out of SoCal visitors who say “the 680” as they do when we visit them.

    I really think the answer is in the radio, and now TV announcers — their habits become how most people talk. I suspect the major stations have always had a style book, so to speak, for newly hired announcers, so the tradition continues.

  37. Houston must still be stuck in the 1930s because native houstonians do not use the numerical designation to refer to highways. Weirdly enough, highways are referred to by the direction most people travel along them in, or sometimes, the part of town they travel to (so in other words, direction). I-10 is the Katy freeway, because people use it primarily to get to Katy. 59 is the southwest freeway. 610 is the inner loop, or just the loop if you live inside it, because it goes in a circle. 99 is the grand parkway, because its the longest toll road. (It’s also going to get an expansion soon, and people are already calling it the outer loop, which will make it the third freeway that goes in a circle around Houston. The other two are called, of course, the beltway and inner loop. 45 is either the gulf freeway or the north freeway, depending on whether you are north or south of the loop. NASA parkway goes to, you guessed it, NASA. Very occasionally I see the common names posted on street signs along with the numerical designations, but i never hear traffic reports refer to highways by numerical designation. And asking someone to pronounce kuykendahl is the easiest way to tell if someone is from out of town or not. (Its pronounced kirk-en-doll, if you wanna try and pass as a native.)

  38. In the Northeast it’s still the usual thing for “the X Road” to actually lead to X if followed, though not necessarily nowadays by the quickest route. Some roads are called “the X Road” in Y and “the Y Road” in X, where X and Y are neighboring places.

  39. That’s the case around where I live (western Mass.).

  40. tetri_tolia says

    Here in Europe when people refer to highways in English it’s always with an article. Possible reasons: (1) the Brits do it; (2) there’s a hell of a lot fewer highways; (3) all the highway names start with letters instead of numbers, and these letters are often different from country to country

  41. As a native Angelino, the only explanation I can offer to why we say “the 405” and so on, is that we have such a strong car culture here, that we have assigned sentient status to the freeways. Thus it’s not just “5,” but “The 5” as if it were a person, or its own consciousness. Because when you spend most of your life in your car commuting and sitting on the 5 or the 101 in mind numbing traffic, when you have seen things that cannot be unseen on that freeway, when you have had pivotal moments of your life (good and bad) unfold during time on said freeway, then that chunk of concrete is not merely a road you take as a means to an end to your destination. Our freeways have lives and personalities of their own. Sometimes they are beasts that we fight to get home after work. Sometimes they are benevolent and allow us to get across The Valley in under 30 minutes (on a Sunday morning). They are fickle. We have a relationship to them. They deserve our respect.

    Before you say, “but there’s traffic everywhere” – ya, ya, I know. I am not saying our traffic is different from any other city conglomeration. I am saying that our collective mind set is different about the driving experience. It flows deep in our psyche here in southern California for many reasons, including status and weather and a million other factors.

    You can cannot drive from one end of Los Angeles County without going through all 5 stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s bloody emotional driving here. We are overly attached to our cars and driving around and we know it. We play out our life dramas on the freeways. We talk to ourselves. We rock out with our cocks out. We cry. We RAGE. We shoot at each other, for Christ’s sake! It’s danger and cathartic and manic. And sometimes its beautiful and calm and downright enjoyable.

    Bottom line is that it’s a habit. It’s our habit. It is what it is.

  42. James Thrombley says

    Using “THE” before the freeway number sounds totally natural to me when referring to SoCal freeways. However whenever I try to use the “THE” in front of freeways in other cities it just does not sound right. I used to live in Houston for example….Saying “The” 45 , “The” 59, or “THA” 610 just does not sound right!

  43. I live in SoCal. Everyone here is from somewhere else. (Myself included). It’s rare to meet native Southern Californians. That’s why I think everyone uses “The + Highway Number”. Nobody here remembers any of the original names of the highways any more. You move here, you look at a map, you see highway numbers. The 5, The 15, The 805, The 125, The 67….. etc. Californians in general are obsessed with giving directions and finding faster routes. Have you ever seen the Saturday Night Live skit called “The Californians”? They nail it:


  44. In New York I notice people use “The” with freeway names, but not numbers. In Dallas people hardly ever use “The.” It’s just LBJ, Stemmons, Central, Woodall Rogers, I-30, I-45, 175, etc. Exceptions are for The Dallas Noth Tollway, also called just The Tollway, and some longer-named roads, but only when “Freeway” or “Turnpike” or “Tollway” or another official designation is actually spoken when referring to them–as in “The George Bush Turnpike,” or just “George Bush,” never “The George Bush.” The same goes for “The C.F. Hawn Freeway” or just “C.F. Hawn” (or “175”) and “The Sam Rayburn Tollway” or just “Sam Rayburn” (or “121”). As Dallas has lots of newcomers from other regions, this may change eventually. Radio and TV personalities sometimes get the customary local usage wrong when they’re new to the media market and refer to “The LBJ” or “The I-35E”.

    And sorry for my inconsistent use of quotation marks.

  45. I dont buy the Grant Geyer story.

    First some background. I’m a Brit who first learned to drive in SoCal in the 1980’s, lived most of the last few decades in NorCal, with a detour to the Seattle area a while ago. So I’m in the odd situation where its second nature to refer to the one freeway common to all three areas by completely different names depending on where I am. Or where I’m giving directions for. So Interstate 5 is I-5 in Seattle, 5 in the Bay Area, and the Golden State Freeway / Santa Ana Freeway / San Diego Freeway (part) in LA.

    So in California I would take 101 south from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, and then the 101 south from Santa Barbara to just south of Oxnard. Where it basically becomes the Ventura Freeway once the 101 crosses the Conejo Grade.

    Confusing, not really. It all makes sense to the locals.

    To me all the main freeways in LA have names. I have no idea what their numbers are. In the Bay Area all the freeways have numbers. But no “I” before the number. Apart from the Nimitz, Bayshore and Guadalupe I dont think anyone knows the official names of the various freeways in the Bay Area. In Seattle its all numbers, but with the “I” in front. So its 80, 101, 280, 85 in the Bay Area but its I-5, I-90, I-520 in Seattle.

    My guess is the increase of freeway number usage in LA in the last few decades may have to do with the rise of the use of GPS with less reliance on radio traffic reports combined with the large numbers of outsiders who move there. Real Angelenos dont use numbers, unless there is no local name. As with some of the newer freeways.

    Never having used GPS while driving in LA I assume that the GPS does not know the freeways names. Like try explaining just where the Ventura Freeways begins and ends. And why its actually a few different freeways. Or that the Santa Ana and Golden State are the same freeway. Just in different places. Until it becomes the San Diego freeway, that is. Which actually started out as the 405.

    What is interesting is that all the bridges in all three areas tend to have names. Often not the official ones when named after politicians or state bureaucrats . In Seattle you have the Mercer Island bridge and the Evergreen Point bridge but I’ve yet to meet anyone outside the respective politicians or state bureaucrats families who actually knew what the official names are. And I just love watching the look of horror on peoples faces when I tell what the official name of the suspension span of the Bay Bridge is. Actually if there is no look of horror you know you are talking to a recent blow in who knows absolutely no recent local or state political history.

  46. @jmcc: While the default in southern California is to use the proper name of a freeway*, that doesn’t help if one does not know the name of a particular route. Living in Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a huge influx of people moving in from out of state. (Oregon took until around 1987 to start coming out of the 1981 recession, mostly because the 1980s were a time of sharp decline in the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. However, that slow recovery meant that the state economy was booming at the end of the 1980s and was essentially untouched by the recession of the early 1990s.) When meeting new people moving to the area, it was easy to identify those coming from southern California (about half of the immigrants) by their use of “the” before highway names.

    *As the term “freeway,” which when I was a kid seemed to be primarily restricted to the west coast, has moved eastward, I have started to see it applied to toll roads, which are emphatically (to me, at least) not “freeways,” since they are not free to drive on.

  47. Interesting, because of Freeway of Love by Aretha Franklin, who is from Tennessee and Michigan.

  48. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Interesting, because of Freeway of Love by Aretha Franklin, who is from Tennessee and Michigan.
    Sung by Aretha of course, but written by Jeffrey E. Cohen and Narada Michael Walden of San Raphael, Calif.

  49. As the term “freeway,” which when I was a kid seemed to be primarily restricted to the west coast, has moved eastward, I have started to see it applied to toll roads, which are emphatically (to me, at least) not “freeways,” since they are not free to drive on.

    As a descriptivist I try to be philosophical and say “Well, that’s language change for you,” but as a former Angeleno and as someone who likes language to make sense, I twitch.

  50. Not that I care, particularly, but I want to train my new laptop not to include my last name in these posts. 🙂

  51. Trond Engen says

    Last name is so old-school.

  52. And that’s a good thing.

  53. marie-lucie says

    Brett: I want to train my new laptop not to include my last name in these posts.

    Try changing what appears in the “Name” box below the writing space.

  54. I’m pretty sure that’s what he did, and why he did it.

  55. (Before I started this blog, I used to comment on other people’s sites as “Steve”; I wonder if any of those 2001-2002 venues are still around?)

  56. Lazar is my real-life middle name; my peers always seemed to like it, so I decided it would be a good online handle.

  57. Bathrobe says

    I only know the song and I thought it was “Ventura Highway”.

  58. I always assumed “freeway” is called “free” not because you can travel it without pay, but because it doesn’t have traffic lights. I didn’t come up with the idea out of the blue. Someplace near Monterey there is a “freeway ends” sign on one of the freeways and what follows is a traffic light, not a toll booth. So here’s a data point for you.

  59. Bathrobe says

    In fact, the Wikipedia articles on both “freeway” and “motorway” redirect to Controlled-access highway.

  60. Huh. From that article:

    Freeway: A divided major roadway with full control of access and with no crossings at grade. This definition applies to toll as well as toll-free roads.

    If I knew that, I’d forgotten. Recalculating…

  61. Lars (the original one) says

    So that’s what they teach people in Traffic Planners’ Colleges these days. Doesn’t mean it was always true.

  62. David Marjanović says

    I find the concept that toll roads are the default and absence of a toll deserves a special name rather unsettling.

  63. A country founded on a tax revolt doesn’t want to pay for highways or anything else, and until the 20C we had few roads with federal funding, though many with state funding. Both the so-called “U.S.” highways of the 1920s and the “Interstate” superhighways of the 1960s were justified on military grounds: both times the Army was asked to design the roads it thought necessary in case of invasion, and the superhighways were specifically made wide enough to accommodate tanks (but not airplanes, that’s an urban legend).

    That said, I think of freeway as a Western term. The OED defines it as ‘a thoroughfare to which the owners of abutting premises are denied the right of direct access, in order to protect the free movement of traffic’, so nothing to do with free as in price.

  64. per incuriam says

    the Army was asked to design the roads it thought necessary in case of invasion

    Like with signs giving wrong directions?

  65. January First-of-May says

    the Army was asked to design the roads it thought necessary in case of invasion

    There’s a common urban legend that the lines of (rather large now) trees on the sides of some major roads in what is now Kalinigrad Oblast were planted by the Germans in what was then East Prussia to protect the roads from aerial reconnaissance (i.e. so that the trees will cover up the view from airplanes).

    Judging from the size, the trees probably actually predate the war, but the “protection from snooping airplanes” story doesn’t really make much sense – both because straight-ish lines of trees would be fairly conspicious anyway, and because trees just plain don’t grow that quickly. Most likely, just like pretty much everywhere else in the world, the trees are there for soil stability.

  66. Like with signs giving wrong directions?

    Well, no. In the U.S. it’s about getting resources from the rest of the country to the place under attack really fast.

  67. If you are planning to defend the place under attack near the border, good roads help you. But if you are planning to slow down the invasion into the interior, good roads help your adversary. Russia practiced defense by unusable roads for centuries with some degree of success.

  68. David Marjanović says

    Those were the times before the ICBMs delocalized the thermonuclear war.

  69. I am a native Southern Californian. Born 1959, child of the 60s, 70s, 80s. I have ALWAYS referred to our freeways by their names…I remember as a young kid how strange it was to hear someone refer to the Hollywood Fwy. as the “101”. “What the hell are they talking about?” Needless to say, I felt the need to help out and correct them. Then, I discovered, most people who use numbers in reference to Fwys were transplants from the East or Mid West. Bingo! Made sense!
    I continue to refer to the Hollywood, Ventura, San Diego, Santa Monica and the PCH… 🙂

  70. Daniel McCoy says

    In the San Francisco Bay Area it was always names of freeways, The Bayshore, The Nimitz, before the Interstate Highway system added a bunch (280, 580, 680), but the definite articles didn’t carry over from the names to the numbers. My guess is that difference was probably due to some prominent radio or television announcers in Southern California adopting the definite article. Traffic reports are where people hear the names the most often.
    On a somewhat related note, I’ve noticed that people in Nashville, which didn’t have freeways before the Interstate Highway System, use the term “the interstate” instead of “the freeway”.

  71. My guess is that difference was probably due to some prominent radio or television announcers in Southern California adopting the definite article.

    That makes sense, but of course one would like to see documentation.

  72. It is certainly the case that there are many localities where the proper names of highways include “the,” but except in southern California, when referred to by interstate or route numbers they remain anarthous. Around Portland, Oregon, the Banfield is I-84, and the Sunset is U. S. 26.

  73. I’m suspicious about these people claiming to use names for California freeways. I grew up in the Bay Area taking 101 and 280, went to college in SoCal where we took the 110 and the 210, and only encountered named freeways (sorry, “expressways”) when I moved to Chicago. I mean, as a map geek I knew the ones in California had names, but I thought they were purely decorative.

    (I just googled up this thread because I was wondering about the precise border in California between arthrousness and anarthrousness)

  74. I knew the ones in California had names, but I thought they were purely decorative.

    When I went to college in LA we often used names (Harbor Freeway, San Diego Freeway, etc.), but that was half a century ago now.

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