Why is __ Called __? The Etymology of SF’s Strange Names

When touring a group around San Francisco it is not uncommon to hear the question, “So why is __ called __?” It’s also not a surprise to hear this question, as many neighborhoods or landmarks in SF have names that either don’t seem quite relevant, or clearly have a backstory. Today we’ll be diving into a few of the most commonly quizzed upon of these names. If you have any good stories behind ones we don’t mention, leave them in the comments!

North Beach: If it’s the Italian district, wouldn’t it make sense to call it Little Italy like every other city? Well, maybe, but the name North Beach did make sense at one time. In case you didn’t know it, the entire Financial District is built on landfill. Before it was built there actually was a beach in North Beach! It looked like this, and the name made a lot more sense.

The Tenderloin: There are a few theories as to why the Tenderloin is called the Tenderloin. The main theory is that back during Prohibition the bar owners would bribe police officers not to shut them down, and with the extra cash the police officers were able to bring home better cuts of meat (or the tenderloin cuts) to their families. Hence, the Tenderloin.

The Golden Gate Bridge: While you might guess that the Golden Gate Bridge was named for the golden-ish hue of its burnt orange color, this is not the case. The Golden Gate Bridge is named after the Golden Gate Strait, which is the opening to the Bay. The strait was given this name by John Fremont, who compared it to the Golden Horn in Istanbul.

The Dogpatch: A somewhat gruesome legend is behind the name of the Dogpatch. Back in the day, the neighboring Bayview district was known as Butchertown because it was a meat butchering district. The butchers would throw out the excess parts and stray dogs would come in packs to consume them.

The Castro: San Francisco’s historic gay district, the Castro is called such after Castro Street which runs through it. Castro Street is named for Jose Castro, a Californio involved in the Bear Flag Revolt.

The Wiggle: If you’re a visitor to San Francisco, chances are good that the idea of riding a bicycle around town seems like an intimidating feat. What you may not know, is that many of these riders are utilizing a true gem of SF- the Wiggle. The Wiggle is made up of a specific combination of flat(ter) streets that help you navigate (or wiggle) around the hills from Market Street to the Panhandle.

Karl the Fog: If you aren’t following Karl, San Francisco’s notorious fog, on Twitter and Instagram yet you should do so now. According to a 2013 article from SF Gate, the fog was named by the employee at Twitter who created the account and named the fog as such in reference to Karl the giant in the film Big Fish. A wonderful description from the article explaining further reads,

“In the case of the fog, Karl is a reference to the giant in the 2003 Tim Burton flick Big Fish, writes the account-holder. “Karl was the giant in town everyone was afraid of because they thought he would kill/eat them. Turns out he was just hungry and lonely.” In San Francisco, that giant is the fog. “Karl is a constant character in our lives. … Some people love how he keeps the city cool, others hate that we don’t get traditional summers. They spot him from all over S.F. and many people have choice words for his arrival. Everyone knows and sees the fog.””

What local name legends are your favorites? *

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About the Author // Eliza Dropkin is the newest member of Vantigo. She enjoys live music, good food, and cruising around town in Lillie.

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