Some Initial Uncertainty Over a Name
Martin H. Webster enlists my support in a campaign to discourage use of the term L.A. as a substitute for Los Angeles.
I must say at once that I think it has about as much chance of success as a revival of Prohibition or a moratorium on sex.
Webster’s concern seems to be genuine. He thinks there is something derogatory about L.A. , and that it is used in scorn by New Yorkers and San Franciscans.
Not only does Webster think we ought to call our city Los Angeles, but, in formal contexts, go all the way and call it by its supposedly historic name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula.
Webster reports that a friend who lives in Portland uses that address in writing to him, and that his letters always get through. That seems to me more a test of the patience and ingenuity of the post office than proof of that name’s validity.
I wouldn’t expect to see that name spelled out in anything less than a 900-page book by some cranky historian, and even then it would probably be wrong. That was the name given to the Los Angeles river by the Franciscans when Portola’s party camped on its banks in 1769.
Actually, the name was Rio de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. It was the feast day of Our Lady of the Angels, and Porciuncula was the name of a church where St. Francis of Assisi prayed. There was no pueblo.
When the pueblo was founded, in 1781, according to recent scholarship, the founders named it simply El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles, which was soon shortened to L.A.
Webster deplores the universal use of L.A. --by press, radio and TV--and especially resents its use by San Franciscans, like Herb Caen, and New Yorkers, like Pauline Kael, the movie critic of the New Yorker. (“Almost unfailingly, she refers to our city as L.A.”)
He thinks it’s all right for us Angelenos to use the term, “but only with some tenderness, and in private, and certainly without ill intentions.” Its use by outsiders, he feels, is impertinent and unwelcome.
I don’t see how one can call one’s dog Spud and expect others to call it Achilles. What we call our city will be its name before the world. Los Angeles , spoken by itself, has a poetic euphony. But it doesn’t work in a poem or a song. It has the wrong meter.
Imagine singing “Los Angeles, Los Angeles, it’s a wonderful town!” or “I Left My Heart in Los Angeles,” or “Moon Over Los Angeles.” All impossible.
But L.A. fits neatly into all sorts of musical and literary contexts. Matt Weinstock’s charming book was called “My L.A.” Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” was the hit of the 1984 Olympic Games (reaching millions in that television commercial). Billy Barnes’ song, “L.A. Is,” is perhaps the best song ever written about L.A.
Los Angeles is almost unique in being known by its initials. We don’t say N.Y. for New York or S.F. for San Francisco or S.D. for San Diego or N.O. for New Orleans or S.P. for San Pedro, though generations of sailors have called San Francisco Frisco , San Diego Dago (merely through ignorant pronunciation, not bigotry) and San Pedro Peedro .
Los Angeles is called L.A. (pronounced Ellay , and sometimes spelled that way) because the term comes trippingly to the tongue and seems to fit our casual style. I have always felt presumptuous calling myself an Angeleno , except that there is a pleasant irony in giving that name to a citizen of Sin City.
But of course L.A. can not be made into a suitable word meaning a citizen of L.A. Ellayan is the closest, and it has never caught on, which means it never will.
The nicknames of cities and their citizens are not created by academic ukase, but by popular invention and usage.
The last line of Billy Barnes’ song, from the review “Billy Barnes’ L.A.,” is simply “But L.A. is!”
So be it.
I myself wish we would go back to the name of the original Indian village, on the site of the present civic center, and call ourselves Yang Na.
It’s either that or La La Land.