Column: Why Southern Californians throw a ‘the’ in front of freeway names and numbers

In Southern California, where I’ve always lived, we toss the definite article “the” in front of freeway names and numbers, so don’t question it. It’s the correct way to talk.

And yet people from elsewhere find this funny, curious, quizzical or maddening, depending on your boiling point regarding what you may consider the ill-advised usage of definite articles.

Most recently, the parents of the Post’s managing editor, down from Northern California to help her move to Naples from the squalor of Signal Hill, asked her to force me to write a column about why we always use “the” with freeway names, or maybe we’d be happier working elsewhere.

The shortest answer is we Southern Californians pretty much invented freeways and so we can call them whatever we want.

We’ve had freeways before they were cool. Before Ike Eisenhower scattered them all over the country to make it easier to move troops and weapons around by way of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.

Decades before that, however, Southern California was already building freeways—and giving them names, like the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the Cahuenga Pass Freeway and the Air Line Freeway, which was a brisk 4-mile but speeded up stretch of Ramona Boulevard that linked downtown Los Angeles to the communities of the southern San Gabriel Valley.

Those freeways, and the intricate web that followed, were all given names as well: The San Diego, the Harbor, the Long Beach, the Pasadena, the San Gabriel River—all preceded with a  “the.”

Giving our freeways names also allowed us to dodge the complicated issue that some stretches of freeway had more than one route number along various parts of its length. The Pasadena Freeway once contained bits of routes 6, 66 and 99; the Harbor included routes 6 and 11.

The state simplified the route numbers in 1964, resulting in each freeway getting only one route number, so, theoretically, we all could have started dropping the “the” at that point, but we didn’t, because it was already part of our collective soul, so our beloved definite article stuck, and continues to be employed when referring to the numbered routes as well, such as the 405, the 710, the 605.

And many of the weak-of-heart who have over the years abandoned the aptly-named Golden State, have kept the “the,” so you’ll hear it now and again in some of the lesser Western states. But it remains, by birth, a Southern California thing.

Out-of-towners get the biggest kick out it, similar to the one we get when they say “hella” all the time, though using “the” in front of freeway names makes a lot of sense, while “hella” is just stupid and shouldn’t be used in any context.

As for freeway names, we’re saying them the way we did when we christened them. Deal with it, or hit the road.

Or, as some might say, “hit road.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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