Highway Linguistics

HIGHWAY LINGUISTICS….Last month, when he was in town, I had dinner with Matt Yglesias, and when we were about done we got to talking about directions back to his hotel (this was a few minutes before I got lost taking him there). He noted that I, like other Californians, refer to freeways using the definite article: “the 5,” “the 405,” “the 10,” etc. Back east, I guess, you don’t do this, do you? It’s — what? “Highway 5”? Or just no identifier at all, as in “Take 10 west until you fall into the ocean and you’re there”?

Or what? The odd thing is that the definite article habit isn’t quite universal in California, though in my experience it’s pretty close. Highway 99, for example, usually seems to be referred to as “highway 99.” Ditto for the famously scenic Highway 1. Other state highways vary.

Anyway, this is apropos of nothing in particular. Just curious. How do you do it in your state? And does anyone happen to know where the linguistic variation comes from?

UPDATE: Just to clear something up, we also frequently refer to freeways by name, just like everyone else: the Santa Monica Freeway, the Garden Grove Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, etc. It’s only when we refer to highways by number that we do it differently from the rest of the country.

Also, several commenters tell me that using the definite article is a Southern California thing, not a California thing. I stand corrected.

In any case, apparently it’s spreading. It appears to have started in Los Angeles, then spread down to San Diego, and has now moved north as far as San Luis Obispo or maybe even Monterey. San Franciscans, as usual, are aghast at this boorish cultural imperialism. More here and here.

UPDATE 2: So far, no good suggestions about where this habit came from. Lampwick suggests maybe it comes from a Spanish language usage, though that doesn’t seem too likely to me. Another common suggestion is that we used to refer to all our freeways by name, and then just kept the “the” when number references became more common. This also doesn’t strike me as right since (a) lots of other areas have names for highways but don’t use “the” when they refer to them by number, and (b) there are some freeways in Southern California that have never been commonly called by anything other than their number.

So I don’t know. If I had to take a guess, I’d say maybe some traffic reporter started the “the” trend years ago and then it took over, just like “sigalert.” But that’s just a guess. If anyone has a better idea, let us know.