La La Land

Pittsburgh with palm trees.

Dear Word Detective:  Mike Royko did several humorous columns about southern California.  I recall one in which he felt that the USA was tilted so all the strange stuff ended up there.  He also coined the moniker “Governor Moonbeam” for Jerry Brown for proposing that California have its own space satellite.  Did he have anything to do with coining the phrase “La La Land”?  (Or is it “LA LA Land”?)  What is the origin of that useful phrase? — Maxwell M. Urata.

Good question, but I’ll have to be careful with my answer.  I might as well admit, right off the bat, that I’m a bit afraid of California.  For one thing, I can’t even type the word without hearing it as pronounced by Governator Ahnold (“cally-FOR-nee-ya”), which makes it sound like either an esoteric legal maneuver or a very unpleasant fungal disease.  I also can’t shake the memory of a science fiction story I read as a child in which California begins spreading eastward and farmers in Iowa suddenly start wearing sunglasses and reading Variety.  I guess that’s two votes for fungus.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have had to explain who Mike Royko was, but it’s probably a good idea to do so now, which is a real shame.  From 1959 until his death in 1997, Royko was the quintessential big city newspaper columnist, the city in this case being Chicago.  Mike Royko’s beat was the lives of working people and the world as viewed through their eyes, rendered with his own wit and fearlessly sharp tongue.  His characterization of then-Governor Jerry Brown as “Governor Moonbeam” in 1978 is perhaps his most famous creation, but Royko later said he regretted coining the term and considered it unfair to Brown.

“La-La Land,” by which is generally meant Los Angeles (although occasionally all of California), certainly has the ring of Royko, but it’s not one of his inventions.  The earliest appearance of the term (in reference to Los Angeles) so far found comes from 1979.  Interestingly, at about the same time, “la-la land” came into use as a slang phrase meaning “a state of dreamy disconnection from reality,” whether due to drunkenness or dementia.

The match of “la-la” to “LA” as an abbreviation for Los Angeles has certainly contributed to the popularity of “La-La Land.”  But “la-la” by itself has long been used to mean “to sing a song by substituting ‘la la’ for the words” (as a child or childlike adult might), which may have fed into the “demented” meaning of “la-la land.”

And while Los Angeles wears the “La-La” crown today, there is evidence that it was not the first winner.  Linguist Ben Zimmer, writing on the American Dialect Society mailing list two years ago, noted a headline from 1925 (in the Los Angeles Times, no less) in which Paris goes by the name “La-La Land.”  Evidently this “La-La” was drawn from the stereotypically French interjection “Ooh-la-la!” (meaning literally “Oh, there, there!”), a phrase popularized by American comedians and cartoons when France was considered the epicenter of all things risque.

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