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Happy birthday, Los Angeles!

September 4, 2008 |  1:02 pm


El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de la Porciúncula officially turns 227 years old today, though, neither you nor anyone else would ever refer to it as such.

What we have called the City of Angels, however, serves as a reminder of the power of naming rights.

In 1945, George R. Stewart, novelist, historian and founder of the American Name society, among other things, released "Names on the Land," an etymological compendium of American place names. Publisher NYRB Classics brought it back into print it this past July, with a new introduction by Paris Review editor Matt Weiland.

Toward the book’s end, curious Angelenos can consult the brief but good-natured Chapter XXXIX, "Flavor of California," for one take on the complex history of correctly pronouncing Southern California’s two most famous words.

At the turn of the 20th century, after decades of blithe Anglo-centric Spanglicizing  — i.e. Mar Vistas instead of Vistas del Mar — Stewart writes of a zealous self-consciousness that suddenly infected its English speakers.

How to say "Los Angeles" after the jump.

"A few advocated a full return to the Spanish," a midcentury Stewart informs us. "Although this would have introduced some quite un-American combinations of sound, and was, humanly speaking, merely impossible. Many compromised for a hard 'g,' as if there were some virtue in connecting the city with angles rather than angels. The 'o,' the second 'e,' the first 's,' the second 's' — all became centers of controversy. The permutations of all possibilities theoretically allowed at least five hundred different pronunciations to enter the running…. In despair or disgust, a great number of people have merely taken to saying L. A., or Los."

Though much faded, that "g" question still lingers in some quarters, says Bill Deverell, USC history professor and director of the Huntington-USC Institute of California and the West, and the decidedly un-Spanish hard twist.

"This is a place born of warfare and territorial acquisition," he says. Names can be a weapon in that. The fate of consonants has "everything to do with historical memory and whose place it is after all."

— Mindy Farabee

Photo by Steve Weaver via Flickr