July 28, 2008

Get On The 405

I've long noticed and been bemused by the tendency of Southern Californians, myself included, to refer to freeways with the definite article preceding the assigned highway number, as in "The 405" or "The 10." Elsewhere in the country, people refer to freeways without any article, as in "Get on 90 east towards Chicago." Occasionally, older folks use the prefix "Route" to denote that a highway is being discussed: "I was out on Route 12 last week, and..."

My reflexive use of the definite article to identify a freeway is one of the ways I know that despite having family roots in Wisconsin and having lived in Florida for a time as a youth, I am ultimately and will always be a Southern Californian. Even when I was an East Tennessean I was a Southern Californian because I kept on referring to Pellissippi Parkway as "the 140" and getting blank stares from people around Knoxville.

About the only exception to the use of "the" as the denominative for a highway number that I can think of Southern Californians using is "Highway 99," the freeway that runs along the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. I'm willing to bet that most Californians do not know that "Highway 99" is the name of an old blues song and that's probably where the parlance has come from.

Also, you'll sometimes hear people -- traffic reporters more than anyone -- identify freeways in the Los Angeles area by name. I pay attention to that sort of thing, so if you talk about the "Hollywood Freeway" or the "Harbor Freeway," I for one will know what you're talking about. But I feel like I'm about the youngest person in Los Angeles County who does. It gets confusing because the Hollywood Freeway is what most people think of as two freeways -- a segment of the 101 from downtown to Studio City, and then the 170 into Burbank. So too is the 110 the Harbor Freeway from San Pedro to downtown, and then if you proceed north on the 110, it becomes the Pasadena Freeway.

This confuses a lot of people, particularly those who haven't figured out that the name of the freeway is its destination, viewed from the perspective of someone in downton Los Angeles. That's why the westbound 10 from downtown is the "Santa Monica Freeway" while if you go east on the 10 from downtown, it's the "San Bernardino Freeway." Same interstate, different names. Because everything radiates out from downtown.

Anyway, Kevin Bush offers an explanation for why Southern Californians have the distinctive use of the definite article before a freeway's identification number. And it's a relic of the freeways having names, which itself is a relic. Kind of like the "sigalert" that you hear about all the time. Few Californians remember what a "sigalert" originally was and the first time I heard of a "sigalert" in the Bay Area I just about choked because it was supposed to be an "only-in-LA" sort of thing, and most Bay Area residents I know would rather be force-fed small cubes of Velveeta cheese than have to concede the creep of Los Angeles culture into their oh-so-sophisticated world that has traffic every damn bit as bad as Los Angeles.

1 comment:

Fern Driscoll said...

It's not just Southern CA. As recent arrivals in the Phoenix area we were amused by the same thing there - all the freeways are preceded by "the" - and also several freeway locations have special names - we're still trying to figure out what the 'mini-stack' is...