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Two Commonly Used Words That Originated in SF

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I’m a self admitted history nerd:  I wake up every morning and watch an hour of the History Channel.  I generally like any movie that’s a period piece.  I really wanna be one of the actors that gets to dress up for historical reenactments for TV and movies.  Like I said, big time history nerd.

Lately I’ve been reading The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury (the same dude who wrote Gangs of New York) and I’ve learned some very interesting things.  Besides finding out who many of SF’s downtown streets were named after, I’ve also learned about a few commonly used words that originated in San Francisco.  The first is the word Mack, like, “That guy Paul T. Alkaly is a total mack.  He gets all the girls.”  Apparently, in 1850, when all the French prostitutes began coming into San Francisco during the Gold Rush, they referred to their pimps as “macquereaux”.  Since the people of San Francisco had a hard time pronouncing the long French word, they shortened it and began calling the pimps, macks.

The second word I learned about is something me and my dirtbag friends have been called a million times, hoodlums.  According to Asbury the term hoodlum came to signify a group of young thieves and brawlers (generally under 20 years old) who became a force to reckon with during the heyday of the Barbary Coast.  He cites multiple sources for where the term came from, but says the most reliable is that the young toughs used to call out “Huddle ’em!” just before surrounding a victim for a beating and/or mugging.  Because of various accents of the time, the call came out sounding like “Hoodlum!” and it wasn’t long until the term was used as a name for the group of misbehaving kids.

And you thought the only things you’d learn on this site was where to get cheap booze and new ways to use the word “motherfucker”.

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Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, poet, TV host, activist, and general shit-stirrer. His website is one of the most influential arts & culture sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and his freelance writing has been featured in Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Bold Italic, and too many other outlets to remember. His weekly column, Broke-Ass City, appears every other Thursday in the San Francisco Examiner. Stuart’s writing has been translated into four languages. In 2011 Stuart created and hosted the travel show Young, Broke, and Beautiful on IFC and in 2015 he ran for Mayor of San Francisco and got nearly 20k votes.

He's been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero":SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York.


  1. February 23, 2009 at 8:03 pm — Reply

    Very interesting! I’m always fascinated to learn where slang like this comes from.

  2. […] other day, Stuart provided the etymology for mack and hoodlum.  Not one to be outdone, I’d like to turn to Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word […]

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