In a memorable scene from the 1969 film "Easy Rider," a toothless homesteader asks his long-haired dinner guests, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, where they’re from. "L.A.," Fonda answers. The rancher, silent, rolls the two syllables around in his mind. Nothing registers. "El…Ay?" he finally asks with a puzzled look.
Characters like Fonda's and Hopper's didn't think twice about shortening "Los Angeles" to "L.A." If anything, the rancher’s reaction surprised them; they assumed anyone would understand the modernist abbreviation.
Nearly a half-century later, some critics still share the homesteader’s suspicion of "L.A." Discontent with the abbreviation is hardly new; in 1928, a reader of the Los Angeles Times objected to the paper’s use of it, writing that it "cheapens the city." But it was Thom Andersen’s magnificent 2003 documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself" that providing the most piercing criticism. In a widely-quoted monologue, Andersen casts scorn on "L.A." as a "slightly derisive diminutive" foisted upon us by Hollywood cinema: "Maybe we adopted it as a way of immunizing ourselves against the implicit scorn, but it still makes me cringe. Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it. When people say 'L.A.,' they often mean 'show business.'"
Another long-running controversy revolves around the question: "Angeleno" or "Angelino"? A while back, D.J. Waldie waded into the debate to point out that both sides had it wrong. The historically correct usage, he noted, is "Angeleño." Waldie’s commentary stirred the waters, and soon after it appeared here on the KCET website in 2011, KPCC hosted a public discussion about "Angeleño." Waldie uses the tildé to this day, but he's won few converts among Los Angeles writers.
Latter-day efforts such as Andersen's and Waldie's resound with an earlier attempt to correct the way we refer to ourselves.
A fierce guardian of Southwestern traditions, journalist Charles Fletcher Lummis fulminated against the common practice around the turn of the 20th century of abbreviating Spanish place names. Santa Buenaventura should never be shortened to "Ventura," he declared; nor San Bernardino, "San Berdoo;" nor San Francisco, "Frisco." "Shallow disrespect for history is never a trifle, he wrote in 1904.
But Lummis held special contempt for the many ways Angeleños abused their city’s name in speech. Counting "no less than twelve distinct mutilations" in circulation, Lummis launched a vigorous letter-writing campaign around 1908 against the way English tongues were then butchering the Spanish name "Los Angeles." Lummis objected to the long E in the most common of the pronunciations, "Lost Angie-Leez." (Today's standard English pronunciation, "Loss AN-jul-ess," didn't earn official recognition until 1952.) Other examples from the time included:
- Loss ANG-eleez
- Loss ANG-el ess
- Loss ANN-Hell-Eez
- Loss ANN-Hell-Ess
- Loss ANN-Ha-Lace
- Loce ANN-Jell-Eez
- Loce ANN-Hay-Lace
- Loce ANG-EL-Eez
Never mind for now that Lummis' preferred pronunciation – "Loce ANG-el-ess" – strays just as far from the true Spanish. In fact, it was the Times that came closest to advocating for that; for many years, the newspaper printed a pronunciation guide – "Loce AHNG-hayl-ais" – beneath its editorial page masthead.
To Lummis' ear, the worst sins involved the use of English sounds that were foreign to Spanish tongues, including the flat O ( "ah ") and the soft G, which he belittled as "jellified." He summarized his case in a brief rhyme on behalf of "Our Lady, The Queen of the Angels," which publications across the nation – including his own Out West – printed with some amusement:
The Lady would remind you please,
Her name is not Los Angie Lees,
Nor Angie anything whatever.
She hopes her friends will be so clever
To spare her fit historic pride
The G shall not be jellified.
O long, G hard, and rhyme with "yes"
And all about Loce Ang—el—ess.
Lummis penned his poem during a time of great demographic change, powered by a mass influx of newcomers from the eastern and midwestern U.S. The Los Angeles he tramped across the country to reach in 1885 was still a predominantly bilingual settlement, a town of maybe 15,000 people, where even the growing numbers of white, Anglo residents were expected to have some familiarity with the Spanish language. By 1908 Los Angeles had ballooned into a city of some 300,000 people, its population now overwhelmingly white, Anglo, and monolingual with only a hazy and romantically tinted memory of the city’s Spanish past.
Was Lummis' campaign, then, a rearguard action? It certainly fits neatly within his lifelong project, in the words of historian William Deverell, "to keep Los Angeles in the Southwest, to keep it tied to regional history, culture, and demography, even as it juggernauted its way to metropolitan, and eventually, global, ambitions."
In light of more recent demographic developments, though, might we see it instead as a premature opening shot? As Los Angeles today transitions into a future as a majority-Latino city, we can hear long-established strongholds of Anglicization falling everywhere, from "Loss FEE-less " to "San PEE-dro." Might Angeleños, with a prod from the past thanks to Charles Lummis, topple "Loss AN-jul-ess" next?