I always assumed this must be some kind of New York affectation, but no. On the website of the MTA, which runs that city's elevated lines, you'll find instructions like this: "For service to Manhattan, transfer between the shuttle bus and L train"
Dennis McClendon, The Encyclopedia of Chicago: "Chicago's rapid transit system has been known as the 'L' since before the first line opened in 1892. "Let me quote from the website of the Chicago Transit Authority: "CTA’s train system is called the ‘L’, short for "elevated." And yet editors stubbornly cling to "El". If someone told them his name was Lynn, would they still insist on calling him Lynne, or Lin, perhaps even Linwood, or whatever else might strick their fancy?
Mike Royko: "You'd think he's been riding the L all his life."
Andrew Greeley: The Bishop and the Missing L Train
Writers of Chicago unite! Fight the debasement of our language. You have nothing to lose but your means of living.
Don't discount your NY hypothesis so quickly. The "L" in NY does not mean elevated: it's a specific line that runs from 14th Street on the west side to Canarsie. And I believe that none of it is actually elevated. Instead, it's the letter "L," just like it's the "A" train you take to go to Harlem.
I'm all for umbrage over spelling, don't get me wrong. But if the word for our train system is an abbreviation of "ELevated," wouldn't the customs of abbreviation lead us to abbreviate it as "El" ?
For example, our state's postal abbreviation is "IL" and I note that all the states have the first letter of their name matching the first letter of their abbreviation. Under a system that would render "L" for elevated, our state's postal code might be "LN" or "LNS." Indiana might be "ND" or "NA."
From an aesthetic perspective, I like the simplicity of "L" but the conventions of the English language don't generally support sleekness. Our spelling is like an ancient temple that bears layers of ornamentation added by a thousand years of changing culture. If Mies van der Rohe had designed our spelling conventions, life would be very different.
Hey, finally someone takes a stand on this issue. As a journalist and recent student in Chicago, it drove me crazy to see the "L" misnamed in several Chicago publications. However, I must also surmise that the MTA's Web site is indeed referring to the L line of the subway, which I take everyday to work.
The solution is easy... just change CTA signage. When CTA sets up signposts outside its stations, those signposts should have a large "L" at the top. Boston does this with the "T", London with the θ, etc.
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