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Call It Frisco?

Our renowned “Baghdad by the Bay” as Herb Caen, the famous San Francisco Chronicle columnist dubbed it, was originally founded in 1776 by Franciscan missionaries (see Mission Dolores) who dedicated the site to the venerable St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th century monk from the hills of Umbria, Italy. So its formal title in Spanish would read “La Ciudad de San Francisco de Assisi.” This particular saint has enjoyed a centuries long admiration for his dedication to, as well as his personal awareness and friendship with, nature, as in his hymm to the earth and references to “Sister Moon” and “Brother Sun.” In fact, he has been adopted by green environmentalists for his passionate identification with the earth and creation.

I don't know what present-day inhabitants of “The City” (that's what we Bay Area residents called it years ago) think of people referring to their esteemed place of origin as “Frisco” as if one could etymologically reduce “San Francisco” to a “Frisco.” As I remember World War II, the term had common usage among Navy sailors (or “gobs”) and possibly by the Marines as exemplified by the esteemed publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser who served a few years as a “gyrene” or a “jarhead” (a term used by sailors referring to the Marines in their dress blues with a stiff collar resembling mason jars) and who, like his buddies, probably drank copious cups of “Joe” (“Java,” or coffee). In a recent article he indicated that he had gone down to “Frisco,” which is probably a hangover from his military service days. I presume that in his growing up days in Marin County he didn't say he was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to “Frisco,” but probably said, “The City.”

Why “The City”? Because the term connoted “class,” a heritage, distinction, beauty, history, cable cars, and opera house, Golden Gate Park rivaled only by New York City's Central Park, Chinatown, seven hills like Rome, a bridge over a golden gate, an engineering marvel of its time, 24th Street with its sense of Mexican chilis and corn tortillas, the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf, the Presidio, Seals Stadium, progressive, democratic, mecca for the nation's gays. The city promoted class. No woman coming to San Francisco would dare to leave her hat, purse, and yes her white gloves at home. The “spirit” of the city demanded it. The City was anything but “déclassé.” Do you think Tony Bennett would have been able to create so much notoriety and cash if he sang “I left my heart in Frigid Frisco”?

Norton I, Emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico, in 1872 and a legendary San Francisco character, once issued an edict prohibiting the word “Frisco” to be used in his kingdom. “Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco” which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor and shall pay into the Imperial treasury as penalty the sum of $25.”

I remember in my seminary boarding school being the butt of insults because I and other students were Oakland residents. These guys from San Francisco acted like cultural snobs and rebuked us as the “Rudi,” peasants, country bumpkins. Even Herb Caen once wrote a book titled “Never Call It Frisco” in which he postulated the same premise as I do here. Caen worshipped everything about the place and waxed poetic about its sights and sounds almost as if he viewed it as a grand cathedral worthy of homage and devotion. Someone has mentioned that Caen regretted making such an issue out of the name in his later days.

There are theories about the origin of the word “Frisco.” Some have suggested that it is an Americanization of the Spanish “alfresco,” a term maybe used by Mexican immigrants coming to The City to escape the heat of the Sierra Nevada. The late etymologist Peter Tamony traced the word all the way back to the middle English “frithsoken,” meaning any refuge or sanctuary. Shortened to “Frisco,” sailors used it to refer to any port where ships could be repaired.

Today if you are young and hip and into rap you are not only using Frisco in your conversation “sippin' Crist-o with some freaks from Frisco” rapped the late Notorious B.I.G. An even shorter word for Frisco is “Sco,” as in “you from the O (Oakland), I'm from the Sco.” As for me, I'm from da Oakland with the feeling of awe every time I cross the Bay Bridge and view this majestic city in front of me. It will always be San Francisco to me, a seven hilled stately queen, smiling and embracing everyone below her, maybe a little spotted and bruised. And Francis is still doing his thing in the Tenderloin with St. Boniface Church's pews servng as nighttime beds for the homeless and St. Anthony's Kitchen up the street still serving free meals as it has for over 50 years.


  1. Bill Christine July 27, 2020

    San Francisco = Frisco
    San Diego = Dago
    Chicago = Chi (“shy”)

    It’s as simple as that.

  2. Geoff Smith July 28, 2020

    San Bernardino = San Berdoo

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