FRISCO.

Just try dropping that word into conversation these days and see what kind of response you get. Chances are good the nickname will be met with a healthy dose of side-eye, a grimace or even a slap on the wrist.

Frisco is the nickname we love to hate.

Bay Curious listener Rena Yang, a native of Oaktown (people seem fine with this one), asked us why she can’t say “Frisco” without someone’s head exploding nearby.

Growing up, Rena relied on her friends to learn the local lingo, since her family spoke Chinese at home. One of the slang words her friends taught her was Frisco. She used it for years, until one day she slipped it in while talking to a co-worker.

Rena Yang has been wondering why some people don't like "Frisco" for years.
Rena Yang has been wondering why some people don’t like “Frisco” for years. (Courtesy of Rena Yang)

“She stops me or she kind of looks at me, and says, ‘Wait, I thought people don’t like that name.’ And I said, ‘Really? I don’t think so,’ ” Rena recalls.

Suddenly, even though she’s a Bay Area native, she felt like an outsider. Ever since she’s wondered: Why all the hate?

If you ask around, people say it’s because it’s disrespectful, truncated, ugly-sounding or icky. Basically, they don’t think the name does the city justice. But we had to find out where these arguments originally came from.

A Mysterious Birth

Let’s start with some history. (Read a great timeline from Mother Jones here.)

Sheet music from 1897 is among the earliest known documents that uses the word "Frisco."
Sheet music from 1897 is among the earliest known documents that uses the word “Frisco.” (The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco)

Author Charles Fracchia, the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, tells me nobody knows exactly where the word originated, but he thinks Frisco got its start in the late 1800s — potentially from some drunkard making a contraction out of San Francisco.

He thinks one of the first written uses was maybe on some sheet music, like this example from 1897. Other people say it may have come earlier, perhaps during the Gold Rush.

Frisco’s use was probably in its heyday when the ports were strong here, around the time of World War II in the 1940s.

“It was kind of a working man’s period of time,” Fracchia says. “The port was thriving, you had lots of small manufactories here. Frisco is kind of a working man’s word.”

A Trashy Name for a Classy City?

The other thing to know: Not long after people started using it, other people started hating it. They said only out-of-towners used it. Tourists, basically.

San Francisco’s self-proclaimed emperor — the Brit Joshua Norton — supposedly banned the use of Frisco in 1872 and said whoever used it would have to pay a $25 fine. But that has not been verified.

One person we do know hated the word: Herb Caen, the revered columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. When he wrote about the city, people listened.

“Herb Caen made San Francisco into almost a village,” Fracchia says. “By the fact that his columns were very popular. There was kind of a lingua franca about them.”

Caen came along after the city had grown from a dinky West Coast outpost into a Gold Rush boomtown with saloons and debauchery, and later into a city that looked more like the East Coast and European cities it wanted to imitate.

Caen wanted San Francisco to be more classy, more chic.

His book, “Don’t Call It Frisco,” came out in 1953.

The opening paragraph:

“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?”

Fracchia says Caen’s book ruined the nickname for a lot of people. People wanted to seem proper, and cultured, so they listened to Caen and shunned it.

“That’s when I think it became controversial or contentious,” Fracchia says.

Frisco is Loved, Too

Now, many people associate the word with an earlier generation. And rightly so.

Take Joey Wilson, co-owner of a tattoo shop in the Mission called … yep, Frisco Tattoo.

Customers of Frisco Tattoo in the Mission sometimes get local pride tattoos that say 'Frisco' or 'San Franpsycho' in fancy lettering.
Customers of Frisco Tattoo in the Mission sometimes get local pride tattoos that say ‘Frisco’ or ‘San Franpsycho’ in fancy lettering. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

“My parents always called it that,” Wilson says. “They were blue-collar workers. It was just something that was instilled in me as a kid.”

Wilson remembers Frisco as a part of his childhood.

“When I was a little kid, I think I was 12 or 13, there was a bike shop called Frisco Choppers,” Wilson says. “I’d race down there on the bus, down Valencia Street, just to buy a T-shirt that said Frisco in big, bold letters because that was the coolest.”

Today he’s in the Hells Angels — the Frisco chapter.

Joey Wilson co-owns the Mission District tattoo shop, Frisco Tattoo. He grew up saying 'Frisco' and has it tattooed on his wrist.
Joey Wilson co-owns the Mission District tattoo shop, Frisco Tattoo. He grew up saying ‘Frisco’ and has it tattooed on his wrist. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

His wife, Lilah Wilson, says they have lots of friends who love Frisco as much as they do.

“A lot of our friends are kind of small-business owners in the city here actually, and really are owners of the name Frisco,” she says. “We had Frisco Boxing, we have 415 Clothing, we had Frisco Choppers years back. Just kind of the root and background of that name and took it far, with T-shirts and tattoos and blew up that name.”

And now Joey Wilson wants to know why Caen’s opinion should matter more than his. After all, Caen was born in Sacramento.

“So that’s the question — why does it upset you to call it Frisco?” he says. “Give us a reason. And who are you to tell us what we can and can’t do? I’m from here. I’m born and raised here, so I think I got rights to call it whatever I want.”

Working on this story one day, I grabbed a Lyft and got to talking with the driver, a guy named Lorenzo Beasley.

“I grew up on the bottom of the city, a small neighborhood called Visitacion Valley,” Beasley says. “I think more of the urban community, like blacks or Hispanics in the city, those people always grew up using that word.”

Beasley says you hear it in Hunters Point, Lakeview, the Fillmore, Potrero Hill and especially the Mission.

I asked him who doesn’t like Frisco.

“It’s like a higher class of people, I guess,” Beasley says. “People who stay in Nob Hill and stuff. They look at it like slang, so they’re not really with it. It’s definitely a bit of snob thing involved.”

For Beasley, whether you use Frisco says what neighborhood you’re from.

Stanford linguist Teresa Pratt echoes that. She says that when you’re talking about language and word choice, like nicknames, you’re virtually always talking about money and power.

“Institutions or people who have power have an interest in maintaining that the way they speak is the right way to speak,” Pratt says. “Because it helps them. Because it’s coupled with this ideology that’s really widespread, that there’s a right way to speak, that there’s a way to speak that gets you ahead.”

Pratt says word choice is like a signal.

“Language as cultural capital, right?” she says. “It’s something like knowing exactly where to put your forks at the end of a meal.”

Nicknames are even more like that. Knowing which one to use and which one not to use tells people where you belong. Which brings us back to Rena, our question-asker, who suddenly felt out of place because she was called out for using Frisco.

“For someone to correct you on that, it’s kind of like, ‘Ugh, did I have it wrong this whole time?’ ” she says.

Well, we have some good news for Rena. The famous Herb Caen eventually flip-flopped on Frisco a couple of times in the 1990s. It turns out we’ve built our anti-Frisco bias on some shaky ground.

And, there are a some admirable bootstrap efforts to bring it back.

SFGate predicted awhile ago that the young and hip would revive it. Joe Eskenazi wrote for SF Weekly that it’s mostly old white people who don’t like it. And Buzzfeed launched a “Call It Frisco” campaign last year.

Join the movement?

  • Broddybounce

    Like Lorenzo, I’m a Lyft driver, too — but whenever any of my tourist passengers refer to San Francisco as “Frisco,” I tell them, no, that’s a city in Texas.

    • Anthillunda2nd

      Like most TNC drivers here in the city you probably aren’t from here or keep residence here. Herb Caen who was from Sacramento had lots of influence over Socialites with his column. If we did a survey… I would put crazy $$$$ on ppl from Dublin / Pinole etc. telling us what we should be calling​ our own city. So heed the call, if you aren’t from the Sco keep your mouth closed

  • Kenster999

    Now, about “San Fran”…

    • Guest

      Or “Cali”…

      • Anne Petersen

        I like “Cali”…. It took me a long time to get used to “NorCal” but oh well.

      • Pato

        cali is a clear way to spot a kook

    • Anne Petersen

      “San Fran” is THE WORST!

      • Andrew D

        I’ve only known SoCal transplants to use this, and, yes, it is THE WORST!

  • Borgus

    Feel me feeling your pain in…”Chi-Town.”

    • Dan Brekke

      Or just “Chi,” for cryin’ out loud.

  • Guest

    Frisco is in Colorado and Texas. Otherwise, it’sj ust another “F” word.

  • Darlene

    I’m from visitation valley and I won’t let anyone get away with “Frisco”. But I grew up there in the 60s when the neighborhood was very different so maybe it is a socioeconomic thing. I agree that there are only two names for my beloved hometown: San Francisco or The City ❤

    • SF Sunset Guy

      I, I, I, I, this is the right city for you!

  • Lizz Campos

    If you need to know what true City folk think about “Frisco”, this video of Eddie Izzard says it very well on how the audience reacts: https://youtu.be/VJ19ahNyM3I?t=45s

  • Rob H

    Otis Redding is one of my favorite singers and “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” is my favorite song of his. And my favorite lyric is from that song? “I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco bay…” so because of that I’ve never really had a problem with people calling it Frisco. I mean come on San Francisco, we are supposed to be the bastion of crazy, open-minded, inclusivity. Do we take ourselves so seriously that we can’t accept certain people calling our city “Frisco” or “San Fran”? What about “The City” or lesser known “The ‘Sco”? There’s a fine line between being classy versus provincial.

    • Daniel McCoy

      “The City” only works in the greater Bay Area. It’s a relative location, like “downtown”.

  • I left my heart in San Francisco……. the most beautiful City in the world.

  • John Lumea

    I lead a San Francisco-based nonprofit, The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, that works on a variety of fronts — research, education, advocacy — to honor the life and advance the legacy of Emperor Norton.

    Re the anti-“Frisco” proclamation so often attributed to the Emperor: It’s true that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that he ever wrote or said such a thing.

    See our long essay on this at http://www.EmperorsBridge.org/blog/2016/2/12/on-the-trail-of-the-elusive-frisco-proclamation.

    • I once read a remarkably wrongheaded essay which took Emperor Norton’s alleged proclamation as proof that the upper classes disdain “Frisco” and thus you should say it if you’re part of the 99%.

  • m_gm

    Caen later changed his mind: “Balderdash,” Caen wrote. “The toughest guys on the old S.F. waterfront, neither rubes nor tourists, called it Frisco, and no effete journalist would have tried to correct them.”

  • Daniel Bacon

    The nickname Frisco has always been used affectionately and never to put down San Francisco, so everyone should feel comfortable using it if they chose.

  • sara

    A nick name, to be a compliment must be received by the recipient as such. I have never heard a New Yorker object to to the ‘Big Apple’ or a New Orleaner object to ‘The Big Easy’. Likewise Oaklanders seem to embrace ‘Oaktown’. My Rust Belt husband is happy to hear ‘Motown’ or ‘Motor City’ for Detroit.

    But many San Franciscans do not embrace Frisco. And that was true long before Herb Caen, God rest his testy lovable soul, came on the scene. My great grand mother, who was born in this city before Caen was even born, would not have been caught dead calling The City ‘Frisco’. And I am pretty sure she was taught that by her mother who was also born here.

    So use ‘Frisco’ if you want, it’s not a cardinal sin. But then neither is your slip showing, it’s just sooooo tacky…

    • Anne Petersen

      You’re cool. 😉

    • Joyce Herrmann Harte

      Thanks Sara. Yes, tacky is a great word for calling San Francisco .”Frisco.” I lived there from 1961 to 1963. It was a very classy, beautiful city then and calling it “Frisco” did not fit at all and it still doesn’t… It’s like we have to dumb down and disrespect everything. San Francisco is a beautiful Spanish name for St. Francis and it should stay that way. Is there something wrong with being CORRECT? AND. we must stop bashing and disrespecting old white people for wanting San Francisco to be called by it’s correct name. Is there now something wrong with being CORRECT and educated?

  • Shaun Miller

    If your really from the bay it’s the “City”.

    • Daniel McCoy

      I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life (65). And yes, in the Bay Area it’s referred to as “the City”, but that isn’t its NAME. That’s a relative location, like “downtown”. “The City” is like downtown for the Bay Area. If I’m in San Jose or Oakland, then maybe I’m going to “the City” for something. But I’ve never understood why people think it’s a name for San Francisco.
      If I’m in New York or LA, I wouldn’t say I’m going to “the City” if I meant I was going to San Francisco. That’s be like being in LA and just saying I’m going “downtown” to mean I’m going to downtown San Francisco. If you were up Long Island, “the City” would be New York City.

  • Andrew D

    In my experience, one’s disdain or adoption of Frisco has always been telling of their socioeconomic background.
    Blue collar = Frisco and proud of it, in fact, many refer to them as Frisco Priders.
    White collar = anything that isn’t Frisco or San Fran, accompanied by a lecture on why people need to do what they prefer.
    White collar and suburbs = The City, along with same lecture about how wrong others are, despite not being a resident themselves.

    • Andrew D

      I’ve also noticed the people who object the most about Frisco are the jerks who always post that tired Mark Twain quote to Facebook on cold summer days.

  • Ada King

    Oh, uh-uh. My father called it Frisco. “You goin’ to Frisco?” I can still hear him say. We are Chinese Americans. He was a Private in the US Army during WWII. Frisco lives!

  • Ada King

    And BTW, absolutely NO to “San Fran”!! Just as bad: “Cali” for California. “The City” I can deal with okay.

    • Daniel McCoy

      “The City” only works in the greater Bay Area. It’s a relative location, like “downtown”.
      You can call SF “the City” in the Bay Area, but don’t call it that in NYC or you’ll sound like a rube.

  • Marjorie Crandell

    Fun story. Like for so many great cities, many things have a local, transient and tourist perspective. My 3 years in San Francisco included being at the World Series during the ’89 earthquake. Friends from Philly use Philly; classmates in Boston argue about “Beantown”; coworkers in NYC always say they live in Manhattan (and maybe Brooklyn) if they do. My neighbors in Rhode Island never discuss locals vs. newcomers because everyone’s “only” from Rhody or Italian (and when traveling people think they’re from Long Island NY.) My relatives from Michigan don’t mind Motor City or Motown, even those in the Tip of the Mit. Relish all your names, beloved San Francisco! I’m from greater Hartford CT and despite being the capitol no nickname has ever stuck except for its brief history as the bland “insurance capitol.”

  • ¤ It’s important that enough people continue to disapprove of “Frisco,” because that makes people feel rebellious when they say it.

  • Dana McLeod

    So many self important commenters being hypocrites as they ‘educate’ the rest of us.

    I’m 4th generation Bay Area resident and from my experience you can screen someone very quickly by what nomenclature they use. Posers and dorks use San Fran & Frisco. Hipsters & Sophistos use SF & The City. End of story.

  • Daniel McCoy

    “It turns out we’ve built our anti-Frisco bias on some shaky ground.”
    Well, we’ve also built Frisco itself on shaky ground, so it’s fitting.
    My father always called it Frisco; he was a construction worker who worked on the Bay Bridge (the SF side), so I think he earned it.

    • Daniel McCoy

      Now call it “San Fran” and you’re definitely a tourist.

  • ES Trader

    Look at the people that call The City other than San Francisco;tattoo shops, bikers, real educated sophisticates, grown men that go by Joey!

    Speaks for itself.

  • Wes Bowers

    I’m from the Peninsula and have NEVER called it Frisco. There was an Internet chain thing going around about a decade or so ago with “rules” for living in San Francisco. One of them was that only tourists called it Frisco or San Fran, and natives didn’t even pronounce it “San Francisco.” It’s pronounced “Sanfrancisco” or “Thecity.” I never realized that’s how the people I grew up with — parents, siblings, friends, neighbors — and I actually pronounced the name until I read that!

  • Kristina Grossman

    Afraid Herb Caen got into my head growing up in Alameda in the 50s & 60s. Now I live in the Northbay & say I’m going into “The City”, but when I’m traveling, everyone recognizes if I say I’m from theSan Francisco area. I never call it Fri***!

  • big bud

    sure glad I’m from elA

    how about frisco ites using silicon bay

  • Penny Wolfsohn

    I am a four generation San Franciscan and my children are five we would never ever referred to San Francisco as that word ! Herb Caen called to that word as an insult to San Francisco, so in my opinion, he is Mr. San Francisco, so that’s the end of the discussion.

Author

Vinnee Tong

Vinnee Tong is a producer working on Bay Curious at KQED. She produced Truth Be Told, the award-winning KQED series on race and identity distributed nationally by Public Radio International.

Before KQED, she was a print reporter at the Associated Press. Awards for her reporting work include an RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award, as well as awards from the New York Press Club and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

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