The Grammarphobia Blog

I left my heart in … Frisco?

Q: My North Beach uncle used to respond negatively when I used the term “Frisco” to refer to San Francisco. He considered it a huge no-no. He loved the city and thought the usage was disrespectful. What’s wrong with it? I (a Midwesterner) kind of like it.

A: Like your uncle, some San Franciscans object to the use of “Frisco,” saying it’s too touristy or it recalls the city’s gritty past.

Etymologically, it’s simply an abbreviation of “San Francisco,” perhaps introduced by 19th-century sailors who used the shortened name for the port.

We know that the nickname “Frisco” has been around since at least as far back as 1849. The city was officially named San Francisco in 1847, taking its name from the already well-known Bay of San Francisco.

Long before the official naming, though, sailors had referred to the town, the port, and the surrounding region as San Francisco.

For example, Richard Henry Dana uses “San Francisco” for both the port and the region in his sailing memoir Two Years Before the Mast (1840).

The earliest published use of “Frisco,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is from an 1849 letter written during the Gold Rush.

The letter, quoted in Octavius Thorndike Howe’s book Argonauts of ’49 (1923), is dated Dec. 30, 1849, and was written by a New Englander who had recently arrived by ship. He uses both the abbreviation and the full name:

“Made good passage to ’Frisco. Captain David Carter of Beverly [Mass.] died on the passage out. Think San Francisco the most contemptible dirty place one could wish to see. Not fit for man or beast.”

Note that the letter writer uses an apostrophe before “Frisco,” so he regarded it as an abbreviation. The apostrophe appears in many early uses.

As we said, this is the earliest known example. But we suspect that earlier ones will turn up, since that letter-writer used the term so casually, as if it were well-known.

Thanks to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, we were able to find other early uses.

This one, for example, is from the March 9, 1850, issue of the Placer Times in Sacramento:

“A correspondent in a ’Frisco paper, writing from this city, says he saw ‘a female pedestrian galloping through our streets.’ Hope she had a good time.”

Nine more examples cropped up later that year in the Placer Times, the Sacramento Transcript, and the Sacramento Daily Union. In succeeding years, the usage was much more widespread. 

And it seems to have been perfectly respectable. We found a reference, for example, in a short story by C. J. Everett, “The Gentleman From Honolulu,” published in the genteel Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine in March 1868.

Early in the story, we’re told that one of the refined characters has picked up some slang on his trip to California and wishes he were “back in Frisco.”

One of his sisters, busy with her embroidery, answers: “Frank, we are tired of hearing you talk of Frisco. Where in the world did you get that name for it?”

He replies: “Oh, that’s the pet name the ‘boys’ give their beautiful harbor-city, the pride of the State. You ought to hear them shout for Frisco, as they throng into the ‘What Cheer House’ of a gala-day; and at the ‘Occidental’ is tossed off many a bumper ‘to Frisco and the ladies.’ ”

The term was common enough to appear in a dictionary published in London, John Stephen Farmer’s Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1890).

The book describes “Frisco” as an American noun—“Short for San Francisco”—and gives contemporary citations from Bret Harte’s poems and from Sporting Life.

Before long, the term was part of common usage, even in officialdom.  

We found this line in a telegram sent in May 1900 by the Surgeon General in Washington, D.C.: “You may inspect all vessels as far as possible from Frisco.”

The message, published in the journal Public Health Reports in June 1900, was sent to a California quarantine officer after an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The officer later wired back: “Now that plague officially announced, wire instructions regarding my duties relative shipment of freight from Frisco to points in California and to surrounding States.”

Of course, since these uses of “Frisco” appeared in telegrams, perhaps the intent was to be brief.

It’s hard to say when some residents began frowning on the abbreviation.

One of the earliest objections is recorded in A Scamper Through America, an 1882 travel book. The English author, T. S. Hudson, warns travelers not to use the abbreviation while visiting the city.

“All Spanish names and expressions are proudly retained,” Hudson writes, “and you must never be heard using the irreverent abbreviation ’Frisco, the only curtailment admissible to the dignity of the citizens being that which they frequently use, ‘San Fran.’ ”

Later, even the local judiciary weighed in. A 1918 issue of the San Francisco Examiner reported that Judge Edmund P. Mogan chewed out a witness, a Los Angeles auto dealer, for using the term “Frisco” four times in his testimony.

“No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles,” said the judge. “Don’t do it again.”

Perhaps the most vocal of the locals was the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who wrote in 1953:

“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?”

Later, Caen moderated his grudge against “Frisco,” writing in a 1978 column: “My recollection is that it’s a waterfront-born nickname that the sailors used lovingly, back when this was the best (wildest) port of call in the Pacific.”

He could be on to something here. The language researcher Peter Tamony also suggested a maritime origin for “Frisco.”

In “The Sailors Call It ‘Frisco,’ ” published in the journal Western Folklore in 1967, Tamony said he didn’t believe that “Frisco” was necessarily an abbreviation.

He suggested the name arrived with sailors, and may have come ultimately from a Middle English term, frithsoken (asylum, sanctuary, “safe harbor”). But since that word died out in the early 1300s, his suggestion seems farfetched.

However, he could have been right that the abbreviation “Frisco” originated with sailors, since the first usage we have is by someone who arrived from New England by ship.

But we’re into mere speculation here. Lacking any documentary evidence of a connection with sailing, we conclude that “Frisco” is probably a simple abbreviation, much like “Berdoo” (San Bernardino); “Sacto” or, more recently, “Sac” (Sacramento); “Philly”; and “Chi.”

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