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shameless pleading





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.

15 comments to La La Land

  • aquart

    Now, I find “Oh, there, there” to be both obvious and reasonable. It was just funny to discover that la la in ancient Sumerian means joy joy or great joy. And Ul la la is joy, joy, joy!. Which works so much better as an exclamation from a French man looking at a beautiful woman: “Ooh la la!”

  • Bert Lawrence

    When did people begin using the abbreviation “LA” for Los Angeles? I don’t recall anyone in film or writing that used LA in the early days of Hollywood. I’m feeling that LA came into common usage sometime during the sixties, when the people of Los Angeles began to recognize that they lived in a world class city. Am I wrong?

  • Bob Newberry

    I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I remmember the city being referred to as LA in the mid forties and fifties.

    I now reside in Jefferson County, Alabama. The county seat is the City of Birmingham. Birmingham’s current mayor is LArry LAngford, who could be referred to as Mayor Moonbeam (He is currently under indictment for fraud and conspiricy). Since his creative finances have been exposed Birmingham has often been called LA LA Land.


    As a child growing up in Detroit, MI 45 years ago, I would hear the term “LA” as a city in California, and thought the city name was spelled “Elay,” an easy misconception for a second grade student. I could not find “Elay” on the California map, so I wondered where people were going. Eventually, I was corrected, and moved to “Elay” 15 years later (Actually, the ‘Beautiful’ San Fernando Valley). With the backbone of the computer porn industry in this area, “E-Lay” seems a more appropriate moniker. As there is also a large Latino influence, “El Lay” may also fit.

  • It’s very curious that in Swahili, LALA Salama means sleep well, or good night. I’ve always known the term lala land to be used in that context… in sleep or dreaming. Now that I travel to Africa all the time, I would imagine there has to be some connection with our US terminology La-La Land and the English translation of the Swahili term LaLa Salama. Makes sense to me now, but certainly not growing up, I knew nothing of Swahili.

  • Ken

    Older use of the term is french which means “there there” and can also mean “delight”. La la land was clearly in use in English as early as 1903 based on its record in the Canadian Parliament.

    It could have been an import from Swahili or from French, meaning the land of delight.

  • Jeremy

    I have records of “La La Land” being used in the 60’s from a Leela Rogotzke. She owned a circuit board printing company in 63 called Lees Electronics. So the Lee was the professional side, and the La was her party side (Lee-La) so when she was off work she would say she was off to La La Land

  • Susan Johann

    Interesting, but “ooh la la”, rather than a stereotypically french expression, is actually a misspelling and mispronunciation of the stereotypically french expression, “oh la la.”

  • Jenni

    To further expound on Susan’s comment, the French phrase “oh la la” is used to convey surprised dismay, and would translate most accurately to “oops” or “oh, dear!” One might cry “oh la la” when a lady spills red wine down the front of her white silk dress.

    Of course, Americans at some point adopted the view that anything French must have something to do with sex, and thus the phrase “ooh la la” is not only mispronounced, but aslo misused to express scandalized glee over something raunchy or taboo.

  • Hugo

    I’m glad I finally looked it up. It will prevent the possibility of being embarrassed by my ignorance some time in the future. I had always thought that “La la land” referred to the land of leftwing nuts, which I took to be Hollywood. I’ll have to look up more things that I thought I knew.

  • WGM

    If Mike Royko, legendary Chicago newspaper pundit, is really the originator of “La La Land”, the etymology is clear. It is a variation of “Chicagoland”, the locally ubiquitous designation for the metropolitan Chicago area. This locution dates back to the 1920’s and s usually attributed to Chicago Tribune editor and owner, Robert McCormick.

  • stacie

    I loved my old movies. Join the club and La La Land were two phrases that made
    sense to me. I used them frequently in school in the early ’70’s. I was throwing
    pebbles across the ocean. So maybe I’m tooting my own horn, but it’s amazing
    to see how no one would ever think someone not famous might popularize
    something like a phrase, or saying. It might be the same kind of thinking that
    wants patents and copyrights done away with.

  • Chad

    “La” is also a negative in Arabic, often used as “no” or referring to something that doesn’t exist (as in the affirmation of faith in Islam: there is no god, but God – la illah ila allahu).

    From this possible root, la la land implies no land, or utopia – literally, “no place”, a non-existent, yet desirable place, that ties into the Swahili idea stated above too. These different possible origins actually could all converge as Swahili interacted with Arabic and French colonizers of much of the Arab world also borrowed from Arabic.

    Interestingly, regardless of its possible origins the term all seems to imply something similar, a utopic, dreamy place!

  • Lynn

    If we are going international, lala in Farsi is for when babies are supposed to go to bed and lala land is where they go when they fall asleep. This dreamland meaning resonates quite nicely with the dreamlands created by LA-Hollywood movie-makers.

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