Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


"The 405" and "the B.Q.E." Both Mean "40-Minute Delay"

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , ,

At the Washington Monthly website, Kevin Drum once raised the question of the (relatively) recent New York discovery of the taco (here is our contribution); now he is investigating a regional linguistic quirk: why is it that Angelenos are the only American city dwellers (save those living in Toronto/Buffalo, apparently) who habitually refer to local thoroughfares as "the 5," "the 405," "the 10"? Here in New York, you take "95" to get to Connecticut and "87" to get upstate and "287" to get across Westchester and so on.

(A friend of mine may have cracked the case, by the way. In Drum's third post on the subject, he asks why the prevailing academic explanation—scale of traffic system—does not also obtain in New York City, which also has a high number of highways. Answer: in New York, if you say "the 1" or "the 3," you're probably referring to a subway.)

I called up my trusty Complete New Yorker, with the sneaky hope that some prescient gem about the "prepended the" would be contained therein. I found nothing about this definite article business. But I found gems nonetheless.

For some reason they are concentrated in the year 1966. That year, in the October 1 issue, the magazine ran "The Ultimate City," a Profile on Los Angeles by Christopher Rand. Let's start with that beguiling Steinberg art, a clear precursor to the famous "View of the World from Ninth Avenue" cover, only from the Los Angeles perspective—and ten years earlier. I zoom out to present the page layout (click to enlarge):


Dedicated as the Profile is to the futuricity of the city, many of the statements therein lend themselves to hindsight evaluation, and the recent spike in gas prices make 2008 an especially good year to excavate it. In dogged, unfussy, even mundane fashion, Rand hits on the main infrastructural features/challenges/problems of Los Angeles you would expect a typical educated representative from the east coast to notice: cars, water, earthquakes, brush fires, freeways, smog. He gets them all.

Rand mentions that the fashionable term for suburbs in the area is "slurbs" (60). Did this term stick? Does anyone say this? Does anyone remember people saying this? Much later (104), Rand writes two sentences that are suggestive from the vantage point of the energy-drained present day. "One wonders what would happen if gas and tire rationing struck L.A. now, as they did at the time of Pearl Harbor." Indeed, one does wonder. And then: "As for mass transit, it is now talked of as if the city were serious about it." Surely the skepticism in that sentence is built-in. But having never visited Los Angeles, I leave it to natives to debate whether 1966 was or was not the year the city finally got serious about the subway and bus system.

On page 109 the article mentions "sigalerts," which term I had only first seen in one of the Washington Monthly posts. I had not realized that the term was so entrenched. In any case, it dates from no later than 1966. For anyone interested in the development of Los Angeles, Rand's article is a fascinating and essential snapshot.

A few months earlier, in the June 11 issue, The New Yorker ran a cartoon, by Whitney Darrow Jr., with only glancing resonance to Drum's "Highway Linguistics" series. Here it is (again, clicking makes big):



As a Buffalonian, I am always slightly tickled to be mistaken for an Angelino with my prepended “the” before highway numbers. I hadn’t realized that Toronotonians also use this construction. Of course, I also only recently had my mind blown by the revelation that Toronto is, like Buffalo, on the “pop” side of the soda/pop divide; it obviously makes sense, as Toronto is a Great Lakes city, but since I think of it as “Canada’s New York”, it was somewhat shocking nonetheless.

They must be similar indeed, for you to make that assumption. But then again, I think of Buffalo as the “Los Angeles of the East,” so it all makes sense.

Fascinating. Loved the Steinberg precursor drawing. More please, Martin!

Another theory: Until relatively recently the freeways in Los Angeles were most commonly referred to by their names. “The” 10 was “the Santa Monica” or “the San Bernadino;” “the” 405 was “the San Diego;” “the” 101 was “the Ventura;” etc.

Thomas CrowJuly 29, 2008

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree