Slang in Southern California is easy to pick up. It’s informed by the weather, traffic, the entertainment industry, and surfing, among other things, and can easily worm its way into your vernacular if you stick around long enough. Here are 16 terms to brush up on before you visit.
Putting “the” in front of highway names
Californians insert the article “the” in front of their freeway names. Thus, you’ll hear people say things like, “Take the 101 north to Studio City,” or “Traffic on the 405 is terrible.” This addition is because early California freeways used to have place-based names, such as the “the San Bernardino Freeway,” according to L.A. historian Nathan Masters. As the rest of the country began building freeways and numbers became the preferred naming system, Californians kept the “the.”
Unnecessarily interjecting the word “like” into sentences is pretty ubiquitous among casual speakers in the U.S. these days, but it originated in the San Fernando Valley as a hallmark of Valley Girl speak. The word like serves as a filler, the way that words like “um” or “er” might. A good example? Cher from Clueless.
Something that is gnarled is knobby and knotty, like an old tree branch or frayed rope. Gnarly became slang for a particularly challenging wave in 1960s surfer culture and is still used today to describe a variety of things in a dubiously positive way.
Hella can be used anywhere one might use the word “very.” That dog is hella cute. This bar is hella cool. These nachos are hella good. It’s a Bay Area slang term from the ’90s that sometimes drifts down the coast, making its way into SoCal vernacular.
You can stoke a fire, but you can also be stoked. To be stoked is to be especially excited for something. “I’m stoked for Tara’s birthday party tomorrow,” or “I’m stoked for vacation.” This slang term originated in ’60s surfer culture, as popularized by the surfing documentary The Endless Summer (1966). One could, perhaps, be stoked to ride a gnarly wave.
May Gray and June Gloom
As temperatures begin to rise in the spring, the waters of the Pacific Ocean remain cool, resulting in condensation and cloudy weather, which in turn leads to Californians experiencing gray, overcast days at the onset of summer. This weather pattern is referred to as May Gray during May. When this same weather pattern continues into June, it is referred to as June Gloom. By July, it’s hot and sunny again.
A SigAlert is some kind of traffic incident that causes the temporary shutdown of a freeway lane. The California Highway Patrol and CalTrans each have different criteria for what qualifies as a SigAlert, but Californians will use the word to describe why traffic has made them late. Again. The term originated in the 1950s, and it takes its name from Loyd C. Sigmon, a broadcasting exec who used his experience in non-combat radio communications during WWII to develop a way to efficiently broadcast pertinent information in sprawling Los Angeles.
If you work in the industry in Los Angeles, you work the entertainment industry. Depending on who you’re talking to, however, that could be TV, film, music, or adult content.
The Santa Anas
Santa Ana is a city in Southern California. The Santa Ana Winds are harsh, hot, dry winds that come down from the Great Basin and whip our palm fronds around. They are the subject of urban legend, with many associating the weather pattern with higher crime rates. Author Raymond Chandler wrote of them in Red Wind: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
Don’t let this unfair term fool you: dirty dogs are one of Los Angeles’ finest street food offerings, right up there with the taco trucks. A dirty dog is a bacon-wrapped hot dog, which comes served hot off a cart with sautéed onions and peppers, typically found outside of popular venues or bars. They are best enjoyed after midnight. This snack is not to be confused with the Dodger Dog, which is the hot dog one acquires while watching a game at Dodger Stadium.
You might hear your friends in The Industry talking about Pilot Season—a time when new TV shows come to life, and actors seek to get cast in what they hope will be the next Game of Thrones. It typically occurs in the first four months of the year, though streaming services have made television debuts a year-round thing. A pilot is a single episode of a prospective TV show that sets up the premise and characters, in the hopes of getting a network to sign on for a whole season.
The Emerald Triangle
The Emerald Triangle consists of three counties: Mendocino County, Humboldt County, and Trinity County. These counties all lie in Northern California, but those in the south know them well as the three counties where most of the state’s now-legal marijuana comes from—hence the name, “The Emerald Triangle.”
The word “grip” means to hold something, either literally or metaphorically. You might grip your train ticket as you prepare to board, or you might find a particularly suspenseful story gripping. In Southern California, a “grip” also means a lot of something: “That’s a grip of bacon,” or “I just made a grip of cash.”
If you’re from Los Angeles, you’re an Angeleno. If you’re from San Diego, you’re a San Diegan. If you spell Angeleno like Angelino, you will be shamed.
The Southland is something of a catch-all term for the greater Los Angeles area. According to the San Diego Reader, “The origins of Southland are unclear but probably sprang from the fertile brain of an early-day Los Angeles newspaperman or real estate developer as a handy reference to the glories of the state from the San Joaquin Valley to the Mexican border.” For instance, today, you might hear a weather report that says a heat wave will be felt across the Southland.
The Orange Curtain
The Orange Curtain refers to the border—physically, but more so metaphorically—that divides Los Angeles County from its conservative neighbor, Orange County. It takes its inspiration from the Iron Curtain and is often used by Angelenos to poke fun at Orange County. Orange County, however, at the very least, has Disneyland.