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Why Southern Californians Insist on "The" Freeway

For years, my morning commute included taking The 10 to The 405 to The 105. It was over an hour of LA driving insanity and it was no joke. Yet to my friends living outside of LA, my daily adventure and its description made them crack up. “Why do you call it THE 405? Isn’t it just a highway,” they’d ask. My response was usually something polite like, “Ha, ha. I’m laughing my bikini right off. Why don’t you go shovel some snow off of your driveway!”

But when you think about it, it is odd. We are the only group in North America that insists on this special designation for our roads, but why? Is it because the freeways are such an important part of our lives that we make them a superlative, like The Pope or The Mona Lisa? Or is it simply an offshoot of our Southland surfer-dude language? It turns out this practice is as old as the city itself.

6664 signs 4 level interchange thumb 600x699 98361 Photo courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Apparently real, federally funded highways didn’t exist in Southern California prior to 1956, when it became mandated by the Interstate Highway Act. The original pathways were cobbled together by a combination of city, county and state agencies. Without an overriding agency, the roads were given the most straightforward names possible. The one that went through the Cahuenga Pass was called, you guessed it, The Cahuenga Pass. The road that went from LA to Santa Ana became, The Santa Ana. Then the government came in with the federal numbering system, yet the “The” just stuck.

Here’s Matt Roth of the Auto Club Archives’ with a more official explanation, “Because the state and federal numbering systems came after these early pieces had already entered the local vernacular, and because many of the freeways had multiple numbers, it was easier to stay with the known designations. Then the era of extensive freeway construction (1959-1971) produced new routes with no verbal names, just numbers, and the practice carried over of using the definite article.” Translation? We just couldn’t kick the “THE.” So it exists to this day. Just like other age old but useless LA practices like watching the weather forecast (it’ll be high 70s and sunny, duh) or claiming to not speak Spanish (if you can say La Cienega correctly, you’re practically fluent).

So go ahead and make fun of our smog and congestion, you can even take a crack at our fitness obsession, but don’t leave our freeways dangling without a “The.”

fwy so cal freeway mural petersen Photo of the restored and digitized mural in the Petersen Automotive Museum as originally painted by Sandra Drilling.

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