Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

HIGHWAY LINGUISTICS....PART 2....Just a quick note on the Southern Californian habit of prepending "the" to highway names. We still don't know where this habit originated, but it turns out there's one other area of the continent where this is common: the Toronto/Buffalo region.

Coincidence? Causation? In which direction? I haven't a clue. But if I'd had to pick one other region that might share our fondness for "the 290" or what have you, that would have been pretty far down the list. Get to work, word sleuths!

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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Seriously, this is starting to appear a bit obsessive on your part, Kevin.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go straighten out the fringe of my rug in the entry way.

Posted by: Rook on July 27, 2008 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

In the Toronto-Buffalo area (in Canada, at least) one of the most important highways is one without a number, "The QEW". I've never been anywhere in the continent where there was such a prominent highway that did not have any sort of number associated with it, just a name. So maybe this leads to parallel structure when talking about the others. You take the QEW, then the 440, then the 305, et cetera.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on July 27, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Obsessive... a bit, but interesting nevertheless.

Here is a Toronto usage of THE Danforth dating back to 1851. Danforth Avenue has always been known locally as The Danforth. It was a major arterial road much before controlled access highways existed.

http://thedanforth.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=61&Itemid=76

Posted by: Anon on July 27, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think that this is exclusively a SoCal thing. I lived in New Orleans for several years in the 80s, for example, and I-10 was *always* referred to as "the I-10." I'm afraid I'm no clearer on how this originated.

Posted by: Frank Jacobs on July 27, 2008 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK


I don't know. It's kinda fun to rag on the NoCals one-sided disdain for us Angelenos.

Posted by: James on July 27, 2008 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

it just makes the most sense. "the one ninety" sets the highway off as a distinct unit if you're giving directions, avoiding confusion with overlapping highways (ie, "the eighty-seven" vs "the two eighty-seven", which could be heard as "to eighty seven"). no one's ever corrected me on this. how long before it spreads to the entire country?

Posted by: buffalo ftw on July 27, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Hmmm..
Growing up in the NYC area, it was pretty simple: It was The BQE, the Deegan, The Van Wyck, the Garden State, but numbers were numbers: take 9W to the Thruway, go pver theTappan See Bridge and take 287..."
Same in the Chicago Area, where I now live: The Eisenhower, the Dan Ryan, the Skyway, but 355, 290, 53.
Question: do you have named highways? (and I mean names that count: US 20 is the Ulysses S. Grant Highway, but no one would know what I was saying if I said that if I said that.) My memories are dim from driving around LA a couple of times in the late 80's. ll I can remember is the Antelope Freeway from Firestign Theatre.
If you don't use names, then maybe assigning the 'the' to the numbers is compensatory.

Posted by: pbg on July 27, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

Jeez Kevin,

Don't you know your history? Don't you remember how after the great Toronto Buffalo Ebola Plague of 1923, trillions of Toronto Buffalonians fled like a bat out of hell along a diagonal only stopping at the Los Angeles harbor?

That explains how according to your theory there are only two locations in the United States that have accurately use "the" in front of a freeway name, and no place in between uses "the" in this fashion.

Or Kevvy, maybe it was the other way around. Afraid they would disappear just like Aimee Semple McPherson, trillonians of Angelenos fled along the diagonal stopping only at Toronto.

Buffalo loonies Buffalo loonies buffalo buffalo Orange County loonies.

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Hi Kevin,

I grew up in L.A. in the 1950s. I am pretty sure the habit of using a shortcut originated with traffic reporters, first on the radio and later on TV. Even today they end their sentences with an adjective, such as, "Traffic is bumper to bumber on the Santa Ana." The word "freeway" is understood.

Posted by: daveb99 on July 27, 2008 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

First, a lot of this is probably the result of timing. California was an innovator in highway/freeway building and sigh practices and established many of its terms before the present interstate system was in place (our signage is still distinct from the national standards it influenced).

Second, not all of the highways/freeways in California are "interstates", so prefacing them all with "i" wouldn't be accurate. While most are interstates today, not all are or started out that way. We also have "Routes" (think Route 66), which can be called "Routes" or prefaced by "US-", as well as California highways. Note also that many of California's "freeways" started out being called "parkways". Thus the first freeway in the world, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, is also known as "the Pasadena Freeway", a.k.a. Route 110, a.k.a. "the 110". It's not an interstate.

And in any case, in California we generically refer to all of them as "freeways", not "interstates".

For example, here are directions from UCLA/Westwood to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena:

Take Sunset Blvd. west to the 405, south on the 405 to the 10, east on the 10 to the 110, north on the 110 to the 5, north on the 5 to the 2, north on the 2 to the 134, east on the 134 to the 210 (it merges into it), and then off at Orange Grove Blvd and follow the signs. About 35 minutes without traffic.

Alternate route: take the 405 north to the 101, the 101 east to the 134, the 134 east until it merges onto the 210. Simpler directions but hotter and usually more traffic.

In the above examples, the 110, 134, 2 and the 210 aren't interstates. They're California state highways. The 101 is the US-101, or Route 101.

Easier just to preface everything with "the" and be done with it. :)

Posted by: Augustus on July 27, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

The british, too, apply the definite article to major roads: the M25, the A1; maybe even to the minor 'B' roads. Except that nobody knows what roads they are, so they're more likely called "the back road to Little Cholmondley", or somesuch.

Posted by: Tja on July 27, 2008 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

"I don't know. It's kinda fun to rag on the NoCals one-sided disdain for us Angelenos."

For the record, the real distinction in California is not a north-south demarcation. (By the way, every sane person knows that Northern California ends just south of Willits.) It is, rather, between Wet California and Dry California, a fact that would be made painfully obvious if the water diversion projects were every shut down or dried up.

James, I don't think your fun would last very long in such an event.

Posted by: on July 27, 2008 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

In the mainland UK it's always "the M1" or "the A4". Anyone who said something like "take M1 North" would be considered odd.

Posted by: aethelbald on July 27, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK


Mr. no-name, I am quite sure that you are correct about the water. We'd be in a world of hurt. Mmmm-wahhh!

Santa Barbara (and environs) is the first town on the 101 that denounces and rejects being in Southern Cal.

Heading north that is.

Posted by: James on July 27, 2008 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

I would guess that communities using a definite article have had major highways the longest and with the greatest impact. It seems like in English we tend to use the definite article at the birth of a new thing or idea but stop when that original thing is now just one of a whole class, or is now familiar. In fact, continued use or misuse of a definite article can mark an individual's lack of understanding about the thing or idea in question (cf. "The Google"). My guess would be that saying "the 290" is a fossilization and passed from a marker of newness to a proper noun in those communities. I would also be interested to know how many interstates were built at once. In a place with just one, you could say "the interstate," "the 5," "I-5" or just "5" without any risk of confusion. But in communities with several built at once, you couldn't just say "the interstate," you'd have to say the number from the very beginning. Does anyone know any historical linguists working on these kinds of things?

Posted by: Sydney on July 27, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

English speaking people from Quebec use "the" as well. Not sure about the francophones.

Posted by: kukito on July 27, 2008 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

Someone in the previous thread moaned that it was stupid that we call the 405 the "San Diego Fwy" when none of it actually goes through that city. What they fail to realize is that it's called that because it goes to San Diego from LA (well, it actually merges with the 5, or Golden State, but you get my point). The Santa Monica Fwy goes to SM from LA. The Pasadena goes to Pasadena from Downtown, and the San Gabriel goes to that valley from LA. That's where fwy names in LA come from, and I'd bet the use of the definite article is a holdover from using the full name. "The Santa Monica Fwy" becomes "The 10."

Posted by: Chasm on July 27, 2008 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

I blame/praise KNX 1070.

Posted by: Streakinhg holmes on July 27, 2008 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Well, in South Jersey (where I grew up), you can always add "Route" to a highway number, so, Route 38, Route 130, Route 295 (a state highway, a U.S. highway, and an Interstate, respectively). That was most common when I was a kid, but you could leave "Route" off and people would understand you. U.S. Route 30 is universally known as the White Horse Pike, and I doubt if anyone would understand you if you referred to Route 30. Same with the state highway known as the Black Horse Pike. Other than that, the only major highways with names are the Turnpike and the Parkway. Over on the Pennsylvania side of the river, I-76 leading into Center City is always "The Schuylkill", never a number, while I'm pretty sure I-95, which is named the Delaware Expressway, is always 95, never "The Delaware".

In the Detroit area, some freeways are known by names, never numbers (the Lodge, the Jeffries, the Southfield). Others have names, but are usually known by their numbers (pretty much everyone calls the Reuther Freeway just 696). And still others have names that nobody ever uses (I-94 is the Ford Freeway, but it's always "I-94"). In general, we use the prefixes (e.g., I-94, or M-59 for a freeway that is a state highway), but not always ("696" just is, although one could call it "I-696"). And US highways, at least in this part of the state, are always known by their road names (US-12 is Michigan Ave., and US-24 is Telegraph Road).

And no, nobody around here would ever refer to "the 94", or "the 696"). That would be considered just plain weird.

Posted by: Don K on July 27, 2008 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Also, for what it's worth, The 10, aka, The Santa Monica Freeway, has yet another moniker posted on a sign near it's beginning in Santa Monica - "The Christopher Columbus Trans Continental Highway." I-10 goes from Santa Monica to Jacksonville, Florida, but from what I understand, this name is only designated on it's western terminus - in FL it has yet another dedication, though I'm not sure to whom. The portion between the 405 and downtown is also designated the "Rosa Parks Freeway" according to a sign near the 405 interchange.

Posted by: Chasm on July 27, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

In Houston it's "the 610 Loop" or just "the Loop", but most other interstates get the I- prefix. "you're gonna take I-10 past Katy to Columbus..." "I-45 is backed up; take the Beltway instead."

On the other hand, I-59 is just "59", without the article or the I-, and when using a freeway name it's always "the Katy freeway," "the Gulf freeway," etc. US 290 is just "290".

In other words, a pure hodgepodge with no rhyme or reason.

Posted by: Jordan on July 27, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

In England roads are typically referred to as "the M25", "the A4", "the B243", etc.

Posted by: rbn on July 27, 2008 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

Dude, time to lay off the mary-jane for a while. You've got waaaaaay too much time on your hands if you're willing to devote two blog entries to this trivial pursuit. Of course, I won't even go into the time people spent commenting on their own backyard, let alone investigating the vernacular. Back to politics!

Posted by: kiweagle on July 27, 2008 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's because LA had freeways BEFORE the interstate highways came along with their numbers.

So, as mentioned above, it was "traffic is clogged on the Santa Ana" because it was a shortcut for "the Santa Ana Freeway" and "... on Santa Ana" would have been mistaken for a "surface street."

When I-10 was built, it therefore became "the 10," etc. But I have certainly noticed it, and even though there was "the Nimitz" in the Bay Area, it never became "the 17."

So maybe my theory doesn't hold water.

Posted by: Cal Gal on July 27, 2008 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

"The british, too, apply the definite article to major roads: the M25, the A1; maybe even to the minor 'B' roads"

Those of us from Northern California are willing to make fun of you too. You also have The The.

Posted by: B on July 27, 2008 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

Cal Gal, I actually think you are close. Nobody much in the Bay Area uses the names of highways, just the numbers. At least, not that I can remember. It probably goes back to TV and radio usage in the area, too. That is I-80 is the Nimitz Freeway, and US 101 is The Bayshore Freeway, but nobody uses the names in common speech or on media. So the process of transferring the "the" never got started.

Now, there's one sometimes use of "the" that drives me bananas, that "the El Camino" or "the El Camino Real" or even "El Camino Highway" or "El Camino Road".

Posted by: Doctor Jay on July 27, 2008 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

Just a note for those non-Californians hypothesizing about freeway nomenclature. The curiosity that Kevin is pointing to is the fact that Southern California calls Highway 101 (which runs through both Northern and Southern CA) "the 101", whereas Northern California, which has almost exactly the same freeway system, simply says "101."

Thus any hypothesis created should account for the fact that two different areas refer to the same highways in two different ways. A hypothesis that says "California's highway systems are unique in such and such a manner that causes this nomenclature" is invalid.

OK, I'm done using fancy schmancy language to talk about sillyness. I promise.

Posted by: MFM on July 27, 2008 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

Well, back in the '40s, Hwy 141 N out of Milw to Port Washington was "The Port Washington Road" and Hwy 57 to Green Bay was "The Green Bay Road". Now we have freeways.

Posted by: Robert R Clough - Thorncraft on July 27, 2008 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

I lived in the Kansas City, Missouri area and they have an annoying naming convention for highways there. Most parts of the country use the word "highway" first and then the number (e.g. Highway 61 - sorry, Dylan) when referring to a roadway. But, in KCMO, they say "61 Highway". It used to drive me freakin' crazy!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 27, 2008 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

In Colorado, The Valley Highway was built before it became I-25 -- The Boulder (or Denver-Boulder) Turnpike was a 25 cent toll road, before it became US-36.

Today, I-25 is more common, but The Valley Highway is still used, just as The Turnpike is interchangeable with 36. Other than those two, most roads are referred to by their letter/number names (E-470, C-470) or their numbers alone (US-285 becomes 285).

I'd guess it's a holdover from the names before the Interstates.

Posted by: -ck- on July 27, 2008 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

Yet up here in the Bay Area, when our freeways changed from names to numbers, we lost the "the" in them.

The Bayshore becomes 101
The Nimitz becomes 880
The Eastshore becomes 80

Although the handy thing about the old names is that they described short segments of freeway so you knew by the name immediately the approximate area. Whereas the numbered designations go on for miles and miles across the entire region.

Posted by: david in norcal on July 27, 2008 at 5:33 PM | PERMALINK

It seems to me that people append "the" to names of freeways and not to streets and roads.

So, if I lived in a place with numbered streets and numbered highways, it'd add a level of comprehensibility if I said,
"take 105th to the 110 to 145th to the 70," instead of
"take 105th to 110 to 145th to 70."

I think it sets off the number as a title, with the subject (highway, freeway) implied.

Posted by: springfielder on July 27, 2008 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

My hypothesis:

In Southern California the freeways are more of a destination. A place where you can do your hair, read the paper, finish your homework, shave your beard, etc. Thus they get upgraded -- "I'm going to the 101"

Maybe in Toronto and Buffalo people get similarly well acquainted with their freeways during blizzards.


Posted by: B on July 27, 2008 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK

I think what you're experiencing is divergence of dialects. Southern California is finally becoming an old enough and established enough region to have distinctive local speech patterns evolve. In a couple of generations, people from San Francisco will be able to identify (and look down on) an Angeleno as soon as he says a sentence.

Posted by: ColoZ on July 27, 2008 at 6:40 PM | PERMALINK

The biggest east-west highway in Ontario is always called "the 401," as far as I've ever heard. I was going to say that the other highways they've twinned since then don't get "the," but I'm not so sure now-- the new roads north from Toronto *could* be "the 400" and "the 402." Regular provincial highways are usually "Highway 16" or whatever. The QEW is "the QEW" because it's a named highway.

In Ohio and PA, in my experience, it's always just the number, or for interstates like 80 it might be "I-80." I've never seen or heard "the 219" or "the 22" and I can't imagine anyone here saying that. PA is a place where linguistic oddities abound, but not this one.

Posted by: Altoid on July 27, 2008 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

I lived in New Orleans for much of my early life and always remember I-10 being referred to as "I-10". Routes and highways were always "route this" or "highway that", except for Hwy 90 which was always "The Chef".

Later when I lived in the Kansas City area, interstates were still preceded by I (I-35, I-70, etc).

I notice that sometimes in the DC area (where I now reside) interstates are simply given a numerical designation (95 North, etc) but highways and routes are still highway and route this or that.

Posted by: Gozer on July 27, 2008 at 6:47 PM | PERMALINK

"Also, for what it's worth, The 10, aka, The Santa Monica Freeway, has yet another moniker posted on a sign near it's beginning in Santa Monica ..."

Though it's the San Bernardino Freeway going east.

"I think what you're experiencing is divergence of dialects. Southern California is finally becoming an old enough and established enough region to have distinctive local speech patterns evolve. "

I suspect that LA won't get its own dialect until the rate of immigrants (from other countries and from elsewhere in the US) slows down. (Though I might be wrong; Chicago developed an accent while acquiring large numbers of immigrants.)
http://youtube.com/watch?v=jbMnXjcv3vA&feature=related

Posted by: MattD on July 27, 2008 at 7:18 PM | PERMALINK

@ James and ColoZ...

Santa Barbara is still SoCal, no matter how hard it tries to say otherwise. When the 101 turns inland in Gaviota, you're in Central California, or at least on the Central Coast. Where the exact line between N and S is on the Central Coast is up for grabs, but Santa Maria and SLO still seem like 'south' (though Central) in the big picture, to me. The Big Sur divides the two halves, really, at least in Wet California. In dry California, I'd say you leave South for Central (Valley, that is), when the 5N comes out of the mountains in one big rush, north of Frazier Park.

As for regional dialects, SoCal has actually had one for a while...sometimes slammed as 'Valley Girl', it's actually more widespread.

Its key characteristic is to end sentences with a slight rise in tone^...usually just on the last word^. Sometimes you hear the rise on every clause^, even on every phrase^. (It makes it sound like the speaker is questioning every statement, or at least putting some light doubt on it). I've heard academics who grew up in Santa Monica and bicultural kids who grew up inland use it, so it's not just a (San Fernando) valley dialect.

Posted by: on July 27, 2008 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

By the way, Kevin maintains that SoCalifornians still also refer to freeways by name, but I find that to be fading fast. This is partly because there are simply too many freeways, now...the 210, the 57, the 605, the 22, the 55, the 91...and who can keep track of which one is the Gardena Freeway and the Foothill Freeway. Since the names are fairly arbitrary (though they originally rested on where a freeway went from downtown LA, but too many freeways start and end somewhere else, now), it's easier to remember the numbers. Some historical names survive -- the Ventura, Santa Monica and San Diego freeways, but more and more they too just are "the 101, the 10, the 405"

Posted by: PQuincy on July 27, 2008 at 7:42 PM | PERMALINK

Just to clarify (i.e. nitpick): to say '...Southern Californian habit of prepending "the" to highway names' is not quite right. Here in Nor Cal, we have "the" Bayshore, "the" MacArthur, "the" Nimitz, etc. It's prepending "the" to highway NUMBERS that is unique to So Cal.

Posted by: sc on July 27, 2008 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

Ask the railroads and they will tell you the north/south line of California is Cuesta Grade on (the) 101 just a few miles north of San Luis Obisipo. Culturally it is a harder argument to make. To me Monterey is definitely NoCal and Santa Barbara is definitely SoCal and San Luis Obispo is a rural county as comfortable with the Central Valley as it is the big cities. I guess I would argue that no "line" exists, instead you must pass through CENTRAL California on your way from north to south or vice versa.

Posted by: on July 27, 2008 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

We take The 40 (aka the Metropolitan), The 20 and The 13 in Montreal. There are The Laurentian and Eastern Townships Autoroutes which have numbers used without "the" but nobody ever uses the numbers. There is also The Main (aka St. Lawrence Blvd.) and The Boulevard in Westmount.

Ottawa has The Queensway (equivalent to Toronto's the QEW).

The use of "the" seems quite widespread.

In fact it seems very common useage.

Posted by: AlisonS on July 27, 2008 at 9:02 PM | PERMALINK

Phoenix also calls highways "the 10" and "the 17" (Interstate highways) as well as similar nomenclature for state highways.

One miscellaneous, somewhat related comment is that in some areas the interstate system was superimposed on freeways that were already there. Thus, I-95 through the Boston area is still "128" (Mass. route 128), especially to older residents like my grandparents.

Posted by: Bill on July 27, 2008 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK

Ottawa has The Queensway (equivalent to Toronto's the QEW).

Well, The Queensway has a number (it's the 417, in case anyone's keeping score), but the QEW doesn't. That always struck me as kind of weird, too, since it's a major four-lane-at-least highway and every other highway I know of has a number.

...BUT...from the magic of Teh Wikipedia, apparently the QEW is secretly the 451. Who knew?

Posted by: ericblair on July 27, 2008 at 9:53 PM | PERMALINK

Santa Barbara just refuses to make any concessions to its obvious geography. I kind of feel like I'm moving into Central Cal after Gaviota on the 101, or heading into bakersfield on the 5. Imperial Valley up the 101 you're right, is still "dry" Cal, but culturally a long way from SoCal. I still regard the Bay area as geographically Central, if you head up north on the 5 towards Shasta, or up the 101 toward Crescent City, seems like truly NoCal. Someone upthread said the true board was just south of Willits. Okaaaay. But the aim is, for Santa Barbara and San Francisco, to remoooooove themselves from us heathen Angelenos, that's all fine with me. Whatever floats your boat. California is all good.


I actually love San Francisco.

Posted by: James on July 27, 2008 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

"Phoenix also calls highways "the 10" and "the 17" (Interstate highways) as well as similar nomenclature for state highways."

Sure, but Phoenix also calls Phoenix a "city".

And what Phoenix really is, is a bunch of Angeleno transplants using the cheap energy of the country's biggest nuke plant to scratch out a living in a desert hell and cultural wasteland.

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

FWIW, there are a few roads prefixed with "the" in the Orlando area. The East-West Expressway comes to mind, which I hear almost exclusively referred to as "The Four-Oh-Eight."

Posted by: OrangeCrush on July 27, 2008 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK

"As for regional dialects, SoCal has actually had one for a while...sometimes slammed as 'Valley Girl', it's actually more widespread."

I came to LA seven years ago from Chicago. When I did, the upper-Midwest vowel sounds in my voice became clear to me (partially through the mocking of others), and I realized that there really is a dialect in that region of the country. But I haven't noticed the "Valley Girl" dialect here in any widespread manner (you describe it well in your post at 7:37). It is widespread in white, younger people (say, younger than 25). But beyond that, it's not common--not to my ear, at least.

I'm sure some sociolinguist has done work on this.

The distinction between wet and dry CA is very clear to me, as well. I prefer the climate in SoCal better (which clearly includes Santa Barbara, though not so clearly SLO--though SLO clearly isn't a NoCal place), but the avarice in water usage down here is horrible. On the positive side, given that so much of it goes to lawns, it will be easy to cut down in the future when we absolutely are forced to do so. I prefer the native SoCal vegetation anyway.

Posted by: MattD on July 27, 2008 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

Have you checked http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/tsip/hseb/products/Named_Freeways.pdf ?


Posted by: J from Wpg on July 27, 2008 at 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

In Austin, we don't name our freeways. There's one exception (Mopac, named for the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company which is where the right of way came from). Everyone uses the name and not the number, but that's probably because it used to be a boulevard before it was turned into a freeway.

Also here in Central Texas Interstate 35 is called "IH35" - overly proper to include the H if you ask me. We might be the only place in the country to do that. Every other state highway is referred to by number but the type of road designation is normally left off. For instance, US 183 becomes just 183. But no names. Names are good. I wish we used names. Except for when it's named after a politician. Then it's sickening.

Posted by: mangler on July 27, 2008 at 11:49 PM | PERMALINK

Um, maybe it's origins are from French? "Le 99", etc?

Posted by: parrot on July 27, 2008 at 11:59 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin in Houston - y'all don't call 59 "I59" because it's not an interstate. It's US 59.

Posted by: mangler on July 28, 2008 at 12:18 AM | PERMALINK

What I said in the other thread: These conventions are all methods for avoiding ambiguity. Jaques Barzun, in his book Simple and Direct, gives examples of how word order and the correct choice of articles creates clarity. Some regions drop the article or the word "highway" but this depends on the fact that the road in question is uniquely understood by local inhabitants: When they say "95" instead of "I-95", everybody understands it for the abbreviation it is. Scientific American once ran an article about the way context and redundancy help us understand language; the example used was a request for a room reservation: "Please reserve a room for Ben Fish." Suppose the transmitted message has an error in one letter, and comes out, "Please reserve a room for ten fish." A front desk clerk who has checked Mr Fish in previously will automatically make the mental correction, but the new person will find it confusing. So it is with our noble colleagues in the Bay Area, who understand 880 to be a road rather than a Boeing aircraft or the name of a non-prescription medication. The problem with such snobbery is that it is limited to accepted local usage. If we were to instruct an Alameda County resident to "take 5," that could refer to a rest break or it could be a driving instruction. Telling that same person to "take 10" would sound like an invitation to a long breather rather than directions to the Santa Monica Pier. Telling that same person to "take the 10" identifies "10" as the direct object and clarifies things.

There is another point here, that the interstate highway naming convention puts the lower numbers south and west, hence the 5 and the 10 intersecting in southern California. You have to provide some context when using these numbers because they are used for lots of other things. On the east coast, the old U.S. 1 has to be prefaced, because telling people to "take one" is ambiguous.

Posted by: Bob G on July 28, 2008 at 1:28 AM | PERMALINK

James @ 9:56 - I live in Oakland and I love L.A. Just as with NYC, I would love to be rich in L.A. but not middle class or poor. Rich people in L.A. really have the life, especially if they have some taste. Give me a neo-Spanish villa with Moorish gardens, sea views, and easy access to Venice and Santa Monica. Heaven. But being middle-class in L.A. would have to be pretty tough.

And I like San Francisco, too, I just can't get all gushy about it 'cause loving SF is a bit ... obvious... You can't really be middle class in SF either anymore, unless you inherited a house or apartment from your family.

Posted by: Leila Abu-Saba on July 28, 2008 at 1:54 AM | PERMALINK

There is another dimension to this.

Canadians say 'The For Oh one' (401 Highway)

They say 'Thee end'

ie if there is a vowel they use the long form of The ('thee') not the short form ('thuh')

Americans seem quite capable of saying

'thuh end' for 'thee end'.

I don't know if this is all Americans, or an East Coast thing.

Posted by: Valuethinker on July 28, 2008 at 4:25 AM | PERMALINK

Valuethinker: "Thuh end" is something I've noticed educated adults using only in recent years, at least in the Northeast and eastern Midwest. Some radio newsreaders have begun doing it, one at NPR in particular (she's an old-timer there, though). In general, I believe spoken English in most parts of the country abhors a full stop in the middle of a sentence, which "thuh end" forces, and educated adults would have been embarrassed to introduce one. A lot of kids do it, but in years past they would have been trained out of it by the time they got out of junior high.

OTOH, it may be a creeping southernism-- we've had a lot of those as people talk rather than correspond with relatives who've moved, Southerners have become much more prominent in national life, and NASCAR has gone big-time-- but I'm not sure.

Posted by: Altoid on July 28, 2008 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

Altoid

Yes it sounds like a penetration of the southern accent into the US as a whole.

What I think has happened is that the opprobium attached to a southern accent has diminished in US public life. So rather than losing it, national figures retain it (think President Bush II v. President Bush I, or Bush II v. Al Gore and Bill Clinton). Bush is the most 'southern sounding' of all of them and by deliberate personal effort.

LBJ and Jimmy Carter striking earlier exceptions.

The other channel for the southern accent into American life was much earlier, via the black sharecroppers emigrating to northern cities, where again they have shaped and reshaped the urban American accent, even of white kids.

Posted by: Valuethinker on July 28, 2008 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

Have you been to the Toronto area? Toronto is Canada's answer to LA. Miles and miles (kilometers?) of horizontal development, connected by freeways. Except for the snow they're a lot alike, so perhaps it is no surprise they'd share a naming convention...

Posted by: c on July 28, 2008 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

I've only lived two places in my life where they had lots of freeways -- Toronto and LA. I just assumed everybody talked about "the 401" or "the 10" until somebody a few years ago asked my why I spoke that way.

And its funny -- when I am somewhere else I don't say "take the 380..." its usually "take I380..." or occasionally "take 380..."

I never really noticed that until this series.

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