Don't call it Frisco

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March 7, 2019

Don't Call it Frisco: History of San Francisco Nicknames

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San Francisco is a lot of things.

It’s hippies, hipsters, vagrants, flagrants, artsy, fartsy and more. You name it, and it probably lives here. And accordingly, no single nickname has ever really stuck for Saint Frank.

Riffs on the grand title of our city come and go. Many of them are "locals only" tags. But no major urban destination can escape the nicknaming process — just look at the Big Apple or the Windy City. Like most things San Francisco, there's no consensus on which nickname — if any — is appropriate. We’ll leave that question for the comments section. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve discovered about the history of San Francisco nicknames.

The Great Debate: Frisco

The St. Louis-San Francisco Railway known as the “Frisco” began operating in 1876, but the nickname is as old as the American West. Herb Caen, the Pulitzer-winning San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was adamant that no one call his fair city by such a sliced up moniker. Instead, "Caress each Spanish syllable, salute our Italian saint. Don't say Frisco and don't say San-Fran-Cis-Co," he advised. "That's the way Easterners, like Larry King pronounce it. It's more like SanfrnSISco." Yet, cultural forces from Otis Redding ("headed for the Frisco bay") to Pink Floyd (the unofficial Darkness Over Frisco live album) to Google (search "Frisco" and see what comes to the top of the page) keep the name associated with San Francisco.

Here's the thing with "Frisco": Nicknames are supposed to embody some overall characteristic, not just act as a lazy surgery of the city’s name. There's a reason we don't call New York "Nork" when we're feeling saucy. It’s the "The City That Never Sleeps" for poetic reasons. Just because "Frisco" sounds like a place (and it is, in Texas and Colorado), doesn't make it a good nickname. No one would get on the I-5 and head south for "Agles."

(Pro tip: If an out-of-town friend calls it Frisco, avoid the soapbox. San Franciscans have a rep for being uptight jerks about the nickname. Don't play into the stereotype. They'll eventually notice you never call it that anyway.)

The Uncool One: San Fran

This suffers from the same lame laziness as Frisco, but with an added layer of sounding like someone trying to be hip. San Fran seems like a name that could and should work in conversation, but it's just so out of the local vernacular that it never fails to trip alarm bells.

The Explain-y One: Baghdad by the Bay

Such a name may trigger worries of negative geopolitical undertones, but this was actually the title of a collection of Caen essays about San Francisco (and a persistent nickname he used). The reference to the ancient Iraqi capital — which is also near Babylon — was meant as an indication of the wide range of characters and cultures you found in San Francisco decades ago. This past decade has put our relationship with Baghdad in a tough place, though. Anyone hearing the phrase for the first time needs a delicate explanation. That's not the sign of a great nickname. Sorry, Herb.

The Easy One: SF

"Es-ef" is fine because it's technically not a nickname, but an acronym. People travel to LA and DC without getting raised eyebrows. I use SF all the time (especially when flying out of “es-ef-oh”) and know plenty of others who do the same. It's just not particularly endearing or interesting.

The Maybe a Century Ago: The Paris of the West

This was a common nickname at the turn of the twentieth century used to coax tourists and lure Easterners to move to our glorious city on the other side of the railroads. But no proud urban destination likes to be thought of as the "something else" to a better-known city, so it's fallen out of use.

The Humble Brag One: The Golden City

Echoes of the gold rush make for a great nickname, but these days, when the Golden City is used by locals, it feels pretty self-indulgent.

Yes, there was gold in them hills, and yes we still have golden sunsets, and the rolling hills shimmer gold most of the year. But San Francisco has a reputation for being a little too proud of itself, and the Golden City doesn't do much to alter that. This is especially true with the modern tech gold rush and the debatable economic value it's creating. The Golden City is really the kind of nickname that everyone except people from San Francisco should use.

The Locals-Only One: The City

The City is a local’s nickname not because of any exclusivity, but because if you are within a reasonable distance of another city, people will have no idea what you're talking about. The capital letters don't translate in conversation. But when used appropriately, the nickname creates a nice recall of the days of Old West yore, when San Francisco was the only metropolitan area within conceivable traveling distance. If you told someone in the Salinas Valley that "I'm heading to The City," they'd know what you meant. Oakland and San Jose were still glimmers in the eyes of today's giants. Everything between here and LA was wild ranching and farmlands. "The City" didn't need capital letters.

The Intimate One: Fog City

To outsiders, fog is San Francisco’s gentle lover. The white duvet creeps through the hills each morning, wrapping us in a great amalgam of cloud and steel. Yet to locals, the fog can be a freezing pain in the ass, ruining bocce ball games and dates on the beach. Karl replaces that warm California sun with a menacing wind that feels like ghosts sucking out your soul. We do love him — HE IS BEAUTIFUL — but in the bittersweet way New Yorkers may love the fact that they never sleep. He's woven into the city's fabric — or, really, he is the city's fabric — which makes for a pretty good nickname.

The Best One (So Far): City by the Bay

Keep it simple. You can drive over the bridges a thousand times and still catch yourself lost in the majesty of San Francisco nestled against the water, islands, sailboats, and sunshine of the bay. Let's call a spade a spade.

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