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Ahead of its 235th birthday, take a look back at the words Los Angeles brought to the world

Happy 235th birthday, Los Angeles [Sept. 4 — definitely a Virgo]!  Instead of getting gifts, we’re giving them. L.A. has bestowed all kinds of new words on the world — not just movie-business terms like “hot set” and the red-carpet posing practice known as “step and repeat,” but “surface street” and “Orange Curtain.” The Los Angeles Library Foundation’s project “Hollywood Is a Verb” looked at the venerable Oxford English Dictionary through polycarbonate wraparound shades and asked Angelenos to suggest distinctly SoCal words — even beyond the 400 or so traced to California newspapers and already enshrined in the OED. USC linguist Edward Finegan talks us through how we are what we say, dude.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THIS INTERVIEW ON THE 'PATT MORRISON ASKS' PODCAST »

Were there any that came up that you thought, “Wow, that’s a great word, that’s singularly Southern California”?

Well, of course the ones that I think are most striking are the ones that really do have to do with Hollywood, with what we’re famous for, namely besides the Industry, which is one of the terms. But traffic is also another arena in which a lot of terms were suggested: Carmageddon, based on Armageddon. And of course the way that we refer to highways, which are numbered, where we put the definite article “the” before them. So we say, “Did you come in on the 10 into the studio this morning?” Or, “Did you take the 405 up to the Valley?” So those terms are peculiarly Angeleno terms.

Do people elsewhere refer to freeways without the article “the”?

Typically they would say, for example, “Take Route 70 from Columbus to Indianapolis,” rather than say, “Take the 70.”

There are some other non-Hollywood terms that come up, and not even freeway terms. Going avocado was a new one on me.

Yeah, it was a new one on me too. It’s a great one. It captures the notion of becoming the Californian.

From this list that the Library Foundation accumulated of singularly Southern California words, do you have any favorites?

I love bummer-to-bummer, which of course is different from bumper-to-bumper. But the freeways have become so slow these days at all times of these days and nights that it really does become a bummer to get on the freeway when you need to get somewhere, and it has affected us tremendously. We choose where we’re going to go to eat and which friends we’re going to spend time with based on what day of the week it is, and what hour of the day it is, and how far away it is, and which freeways we need to take. So I’m very fond of bummer-to-bummer.

You wonder whether anyone outside Southern California would understand a sentence like, “Wow, I hope you don’t run into a SigAlert on your way to the table read in the Valley.”

That’s a good example. We have table read, we have the Valley, we have SigAlert. When I first came to California, when I started hearing the word SigAlert, I took it to mean a signal alert and the meaning of it was clear — that there has been an important or significant traffic snarl somewhere and we’re being signaled against it. It turns out that’s the wrong etymology altogether. It’s —

A man’s name. Sigmon Loyd, is that right? Loyd Sigmon.

And a similar kind of thing for Cobb salad. I never stopped to think about Cobb salad — you can get it anywhere now, throughout the United States, but of course it’s named after a man named Cobb who invented it in a restaurant in Hollywood.

There’s no way to know whether any of these new Southern California words will ever make their way into the OED, but there is one Southern California word or compound that’s already in there. What is that?

Well, there are lots of them, but one that struck me as I was thinking about this is car bomb, the word car bomb. We don’t know where it was first used because what dictionaries rely on of course are published records for the most part. But the first citation to the word car bomb in the Oxford English Dictionary is to its use in the Los Angeles Times, in 1923, on the 25th of June.

It was in a headline and it said, Wealthy Scion Nabbed as Car Bomb Death Suspect. There are actually 192 first citations attributed to the Los Angeles Times in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I’m so proud! Any others pop up?

Of course some of them are well known and not surprising, like motel — which is of course a word that was invented in San Luis Obispo —

Motor hotel?

Motor hotel.

Because they couldn’t afford all the neon!

But there are others that originate in citations from the Los Angeles Times. That means the very first use that the OED has found for these words was in the Los Angeles Times, words like pesticide and supermarket and, perhaps not surprisingly, aerospace. Also words like Chicana and even must-see. Think tank was one which really did surprise me. So there are lots of them.

There are almost 400 words that the OED cites from California, whose first citation is in a California newspaper, papers from Fresno and Long Beach as well of course as the L.A. Times — an extraordinary number from a single state.

I also checked words which I think we think of as California words, words like gnarly, for example, and totally.

Pronounced toooootally.

Totally, totally, totally. Even in its current use, it turns out not to have, as first citations in the OED, California sources. So the word dude, much to my surprise —

The duuude pronunciation, with five Us in it —

— doesn’t actually have an initial California citation. I didn’t check to see whether there were any from Patt Morrison, but we can do that and see what comes up.

Oh, if only — my little claim to immortality!

A couple of words on this list that the Library Foundation accumulated are words I don’t hear Angelenos using about themselves. I’ve never heard an Angeleno say LaLa Land. That seems to be something tabloids and East Coast publications use. Or Cali for California. Cali to me is a drug cartel.

I, too, am not aware that I’ve heard anyone from Los Angeles or even from California talk about Cali or Southern Cali. And certainly not LaLa Land, which is a derogatory; it’s used derogatorily, so those are terms I think are used by outsiders.

How do dictionaries, especially one with the august reputation of the Oxford English Dictionary, decide what’s good enough, what’s durable enough and significant enough to be put in a dictionary?

There still are paper dictionaries, of course; younger people increasingly are not relying on them. But we need to contrast those in a way with electronic dictionaries and online dictionaries and the reason I say that is that online dictionaries can take a little more risk by putting in words, which don’t take up physical space. There’s simply much more room for them.

The OED, unlike other dictionaries, never takes a word out. Other dictionaries, especially those that are still being printed, are limited in size for financial reasons and so they have real limitations on space. And in order to make room for new words, old ones have to come out, or words that are not being so frequently used. The OED doesn’t follow that practice.

The OED has taken on the task of recording the language from the beginning, and what that then shows in greater depth than any other dictionary can show is the tremendous vitality in English.

Los Angeles not only creates words it creates ways of speaking. Of course we all know about Valley-speak, and the upspeak and the nasal speak that we hear so often in young people, men and women, from reality shows, where they speak way up in their noses and everything ends as an interrogative rather than as a declarative sentence. Like, “The sun comes up in the east? Sounds like I’m not really sure?” I find it annoying, but where does that come from and how do you develop these regionalisms?

Where they come from is not clear. They arise and they catch on and they catch on especially when you’re talking about pronunciations they catch on from person to person.

That’s why they call it viral.

You mentioned upspeak, or uptalk, it’s sometimes called. Linguists call it high-rising tone. It’s been associated with women. I think that it probably has begun with women, but you hear more and more young men, particularly, using it. So if it spreads now to men as well as being used by women, then it will no longer be a gender marker or a gender identity marker as it is now to a great extent.

Is there such a thing as a Los Angeles accent? Because my sense is that there are so many voices of people, not just the numbers of people but the sources of those voices, that we tend to knock off chips of regionalisms and other speech patterns to create a generally accepted, almost non-accented English. Am I wrong?

It’s unclear whether or not regional accents are disappearing. Certainly on television and places where we have the broadcast media of various kinds, there seems to be a leveling out. But if you look at the local news as opposed to the national news, then you begin to hear differences.

I’ve lived in California for 48 years. But people still hear something in my pronunciation which is regional. And when I go home —

Where is home?

Queens, metropolitan New York. I have a slew of brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, and they all feel that I’m talking snobbily because I say, for example, wa-ter instead of woa-tuh. My pronunciation of course has adapted itself to Los Angeles standards, to western standards, in a very natural way. There’s nothing that I’ve done deliberately. But to my siblings, it sounds rather snooty to say wat-er. So just because it’s not what New Yorkers recognize as native, and because they know I’m native, it sounds like I’ve become snooty or even snotty!

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