The Grammarphobia Blog

Our two Left Coasts?

Q: I often hear the East Coast of the US referred to as the “Eastern Seaboard,” but I can’t recall ever hearing the West Coast called the “Western Seaboard.” Why do you think that is? Similarly, I hear the mocking term “Left Coast,” but I never hear “Right Coast.” Do you think that’s because both coasts are associated with the Left politically? Just wondering.

A: Although “Eastern Seaboard” is far more popular, “Western Seaboard” is not unknown. We googled both phrases and got more than 1.1 million hits for the eastern term compared with about 91,000 for the western one.

Interestingly, most of the “Western Seaboard” hits refer not to the Pacific shore of the United States but to the West Coasts of Canada, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, and other countries.

We did find some 19th-century references in the New York Times archive to both the Eastern and Western Seaboards of the US, but the western version is rarely seen today.

Why? Beats us. There are a few theories that attempt to explain this, but none of them are very convincing. We can, however, tell you a bit about the history of the word “seaboard.”

Back in Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “board” meant “the border or side of anything; a hem; an edge; a coast.”

This sense of the word is now considered obsolete except in the word “seaboard,” which entered English around 1400 and had several early nautical meanings.

It eventually took on its coastline sense, first as an adjective in the 16th century and then as a noun in the 18th century. (We discussed “seaboard” at greater length a while ago in another blog entry.)

As for the “Left Coast” business, William Safire wrote an On Language column about it in the Oct. 1, 2000, issue of the New York Times Magazine.

He credited Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, with tracking down the earliest “Left Coast” citation – in the title of a 1977 Rolling Stone record review: “Wet Willie Left Coast Live.”

Three years later, a New York Times writer explained the term this way: “If you’re standing in Texas looking north, as Texans frequently do, the Left Coast is where Hollywood is.”

These early usages, Safire wrote, “had no political connotation,” but in the mid-’90s, “a liberal coloration emerged.” The Denver Post, for example, noted that President Clinton “swayed to the left coast and invited gays into the military.”

“The combination of geographical and political direction was irresistible,” Safire added.

Why isn’t the East Coast called the “Right Coast”? We think you’re right that it has something to do with the East Coast’s – or at least the Northeast’s – reputation for liberalism.

In fact, the Safire column cited this quotation attributed to Mr. Conservative himself, Barry Goldwater: “We ought to saw off the Eastern Seaboard and float it out to sea.”

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.