Herb Caen: Master of the Three Dots

This story is what got me started on remembering Herb Caen — it’s from True’s 17 May 2009 issue:

Freaks of Nomenclature — May Edition

An employee from the Kissimmee Utility Authority working at an electrical substation in Buenaventura Lakes, Fla., received a severe shock and was hospitalized in stable condition. His name: Robert Crisp. Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic priest has been removed from his duties after he admitted he has had a two-year affair with a woman. The 40-year-old priest, known as “Father Oprah” because of his role as head of the Miami, Fla., Archdiocese’s international radio network, where he gave advice on relationships, admits celibacy is something he “struggled with for a long time.” His name: Fr. Alberto Cutie. (Orlando Sentinel, AP) …What a shock.

Regarding my occasional use of “Freaks of Nomenclature”: It’s a nod toward my favorite columnist, the late Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle, whom I read from the time I started reading newspapers as a boy through journalism school; such was one of the benefits of living in northern California.

Subconscious Inspiration

Caen was a columnist from 1938 until his death at 80 in 1997, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that he had a significant impact on my style. Caen (pronounced “cane”) also wrote about “everything” — “short, snappy items” separated by ellipses (aka, “three dots.” You know: — or, if properly used at the end of the sentence, four dots, because you also have to include the period….)

Caen’s column header.

It was such a style for him that he referred to his columns as “three-dot journalism.”

I didn’t set out to mirror Caen, or anyone else, for that matter. But Caen is in my blood from reading him for years. How he did it was just ingrained in the memory cell “This is how a columnist does it.”

Caen admitted freely that he stole his style from Walter Winchell, and was proud when he met Winchell in 1948 that his mentor called him “the kid who imitates me better than anybody in the business.”

Caen went on to find his own version of the style, and is the guy who coined the name “Beserkeley” for Berkeley, on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. (He also coined his own name for his beloved city: “Baghdad by the Bay” — the title of his memoir.) He also coined the word “beatnik.”


While researching this remembrance, I was startled to see he started off his paragraphs (each a different topic) with BOLD CAPS, sometimes with a colon at the end (as I used to do with stories), and sometimes just leading into the sentence (as I do in the author’s notes section of the newsletter).

I actually use plain bold when I write my “slugs” (titles) and, in the plain text email days, changed that to all caps when it went out in the newsletter — because plain text email can’t be bolded.

That changed, though, when I went to “simple HTML” for the newsletters starting with Issue #1000.

A classic Caen example:

SPEAKING OF civilization, Halloween is an odd, non-American (not un-American) throwback to the Middle Ages. One thinks of macabre wood carvings, torture chambers, soldiers dumping molten lead on the mobs clamoring at the castle gate. In this civilized city in a civilized state of confusion, the rite has progressed to a more rarefied level: Hospitals will X-ray fruit, candy and cookies free to see if they contain razor blades, shards of glass or other foreign objects placed therein by people who may not even be registered voters. You go out tonight at your own risk, but you do the same Tuesday when you stick your head into that skimpy tent, your rear end sticking out, to stick pins into the electronic-age ballot. I miss the old mechanical voting booths, with their reassuring clicks and clangs and the exciting possibility that they could be easily fixed by the rogues and scoundrels who really knew how to run this town. (Caen, October 31, 1986)

That doesn’t show the three-dot style, though, so one more graf:

BAY CITY BEAT: At the brand-new Pizza Orgasmica in the Bermuda Triangle, First-Nighter Bruce Bellingham noticed several women nodding happily over their orgasmic experience and whispered, “I’ll bet half of them are faking it” … Saab story, or, only in Berserkeley: After the Mario Savio memorial at Cal, David Jansen spotted a bumpersticker reading “I’d Rather Be Smashing Imperialism” — on a new Saab. Mario would have been mordantly amused … Jerry Matters on the current most noisome fad: “Pretty girls smoking cigars are like roses dipped in mustard” … Stale tale of the town: Just found out that when the New & Improved Top o’ the Mark reopened, it was about to be picketed by the local Carpenters Union because the H. Caen Three-Dot Bar, the only bar in the place, was made by a nonunion shop in San Luis Obispo. The pickets were called off at the last minute by union prez Jim Salinas for a god-I-loove-this-town reason: “My mother was a maid at the Mark for 47 years, and as a 47-year-old native, I would have had a lot of explaining to do.” (Caen, December 12, 1996)


Herb Caen
Herb Caen, and his faithful Royal typewriter. (Photo: San Francisco Chronicle)

One of his recurring features was “Namephreaks” — people whose name matched their profession. Like the local fisherman named Buzz Minnow. The dentist Rodney Pain. Hospital spokeswoman Pam Talkington. Substitute teacher (at my high school!) Mr. Fillin (and no, I don’t remember him).

Piano teacher Patience Scales. Divorce lawyer Philander Beadle. Orthopedist Dr. Kneebone. And “the Vatican spokesman for its latest decree against rock ’n’ roll is one Cardinal Rapsong and that is why namephreaks will always be with us,” he wrote in 1996.

I preferred my own twist on “namephreaks”; besides, I couldn’t very well copy him. Hence, “Freaks of Nomenclature”.


Caen never wanted to retire. He wanted his obituary to be on the front page of the Chronicle, and figured he’d write it himself. “It will trail off at the end, where I fall face down on the old Royal with my nose on the ‘I’ key,” he once said.

Well, almost. He slowed down toward the end, “only” writing five columns a week, rather than seven, with a rerun printed on Sundays. And to the end, he really did pound it all out on a Royal typewriter, supposedly the last typewriter used at the Chronicle. And he typed with two fingers.

I’ll never have the pleasure of hearing Caen’s opinion of my stuff, but it’s a delight to share his memory with some people who remember him, and many more who never heard of him. May he live on in the smudgy ink on cheap paper for decades to come.

• • •
Related Page: Herb Caen: the First Honorary Unsubscribe — Sort Of

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47 Comments on “Herb Caen: Master of the Three Dots

  1. Bob Levey, in his Bob Levey’s Washington column in the Washington Post, used to run groups of apropos names from time to time. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what he called them. But I pointed out to him that the tradition ran back as far as the 1920s – columnist FPA (Franklin P. Adams) called them “aptonyms” when he came across them.

    I remember reading about Herb Caen – never read his columns, as I never lived in a city where they were published.

  2. You brought up a wealth of memories when you spoke of Caen. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 15 years and my favorite place to go in the paper was Herb Caen’s column. Although I wasn’t born there, he had a way of making me feel connected to the area and the written word. When he retired, I didn’t know what I would do because I knew the newspaper would never be the same without him. Now it is all clicking for me. That is probably the very reason I love “This is True”. (I wish I could remember how I started reading it, but knew one day I just had to become a premium subscriber) You are the best. And now I know why I use the three dots in my text messages…thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. …Wow, I hadn’t thought of Herb Caen in a very long time…I grew up in the Bay Area and am very familiar with his byline…He would pick the most off the wall things to comment on, anything that caught his fancy or gave him pause to think…He even mentioned the business my father worked for and in a follow up column he mentioned my father…the business, located in San Mateo and with a big sign right next to Bayshore Freeway (hwy101) was named Bay Slurry Seal…it was an aaphalt resurfacing company that used an asphalt slurry to reseal streets, parking lots and really anything one might imagine…Mr Caen saw the sign and made a comment in his column asking what the heck is a Bay Slurry Seal; is it a contraction of Slippery and Furry or what?…when my father saw the column, he called Mr. Caen and explained all about the business and Mr. Caen most graciously passed on the explanation to his readers in his next column…minor celebrity for my father and the business for a few days and a most gracious thank you from Mr. Caen for dad supplying the information…in this day and age of very questionable “journalism”, it is nice to remember a Real Journalist…thanks, Randy, for bringing to mind a nice memory….

  4. I lived in SF from 1975-86, and Herb Caen’s column was the first thing I turned to every morning. (I remember when he changed the “skyscape” behind his name to include the Transamerica pyramid, tweaked at an angle next to Coit Tower). His columns are as much a cherished memory to me as the noon news on KSAN and lengthy, calf-developing strolls through The City. Thanks for the reminiscence, Randy…you’re not the only writer he left his mark on.

  5. It is always fun to reminisce about mentors – intended or not. It can be even more fun when you realize that they are more important to you than you initially figured.

    While I have never knowingly read the man’s work myself, I have for many years enjoyed your writing, including the unique style you employ.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  6. I must say I’ve never had the pleasure of reading Caen until now (but I have heard of him) – now I can only think of him as just a copy of Randy Cassingham!

    I have heard the term Caen uses for “Berkeley” before, but I’ve always seen it spelled “Berzerkeley” – maybe it’s just a regional/Canadian thing, looked odd his way to me …

  7. I was an early admirer of Herb Caen. One of my first jobs 1962-64 was to deliver the SF Chronicle by bicycle in Modesto, CA. My last stop each morning was a early opening tavern where factory workers came after their graveyard shift. The owner of the place let me have a coke while I enjoyed Herb’s writing. The short pieces moved together making it the Life like I wanted to live. I continued my education and enjoyed my career, but I continued read Herb Caen until he was gone.

    I miss him even today… Thanks for the memories.

  8. Great notes and memories of Herb Caen.. I grew up and lived many years in San Diego where we didn’t get much of Herb or the Chronicle, but the story reminded me of Frank Rhoades, a San Diego Union columnist that had a similar style to Herb Caen. Thanks, Randy, for a ride on the ‘way back machine’!

  9. I remember Herb Caen because I subscribed to the Chron for several years when I lived in Hayward and Oakland. His column was a must-read every day, even though I often had never been to many of the places he wrote about. Now I know one of the reasons I like your writing – he copied you!

  10. Growing up in Southern California, I found I didn’t agree with all he wrote, but one observation of his I do remember: “Scotch tastes to me like a low grade of gasoline”.

    And I found my favorite restaurant in SF was his noon-day haunt, Jack’s. It opened during the Civil War and pretty much stayed open ever since, closing after the quake until rebuilt, and for about a year-and-a-half in this century. It’s now called “Jeanty at Jacks”. There are pictures of Herb Caen on the walls upstairs….

  11. When my wife and I lived in Alameda in the mid-70s, we read Herb Caen’s writings regularly and loved them. He was really a master of the word, like a minister who could deliver a whole sermon in ten minutes, Caen could make a point in a sentence or two. Great reminiscence, and a worthy tribute to a great writer….

  12. Why did you feel the need not to use Caen’s phraseology? Surely allowing someone’s terminology to enter the lexicon is the greatest compliment you can pay to them for bringing the idea to your notice….

    (These “Freaks of Nomenclature” frequently appear in New Scientist, incidentally, under the name of “Nominative determinism”.)

    Really? Huh! But bottom line, I just like my version of the term better. I’ve been using it since the 1970s, when I was first reading Caen. -rc

  13. Thanks for the memories. I grew up in the desert but went to college at Humboldt State in northern coast of the state in the early/mid 80s and really enjoyed his column. I did not know much about The City but enjoyed his bit sized pieces of new and old recollections of Baghdad by the Bay. I became a three or four or five dot writer in most of my writing for enjoyment since then. Made me feel comfortable in writing that way as I was when I learned of his style in the Chron. Thanks again.

  14. A friend of mine knew Herb Caen and they did not like each other. When the first Iraq War began he needled Herb about why there were no more references to SF as Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Herb’s reply is best expressed in his 3 dot manner, “F… you.” However, I got my friend to forgive Herb and go to a bar with me to celebrate Herb’s life by getting drunk on vodka (Vitamin V) martinis for 25 cents a drink, the 1938 price when he began his column.

    But everyone read his column and we loved it. Herb was often quoted as far away as the Detroit News and Free Press. I was born in Detroit and always enjoyed his quotes. It was great to be able to read him daily when I moved out here.

  15. Herb Caen was like a God to me when I was with the Army at Presidio of S.F., then completing work for my journalism degree at Berkeley in 1953-54, following the Korean interruption. I was within a heartbeat of applying for work at the Chronicle, but returned to my first love of weekly journalism instead. My work over the years included an editorial column (for a couple of years not too far north of San Francisco). Like Herb, I’m still writing at 80 but more in book form now. Along the way I picked up somewhere on “3-dot journalism.” The ellipsis is about the handiest bit of punctuation I ever ran across, with the dash not too far behind. I guess I’m sort of a “dot-dash journalism” guy. To hell with grammatical purists … up with the ellipsis — and hurrah for the dash!

  16. Herb was the first thing I read every day when I was growing up in Oakland and Piedmont. I may have gotten my writing style from him (say as much as possible in as few words as possible).

  17. Growing up in the LA area, we had the pleasure of Caen’s “kinder, gentler” counterpart, Jack Smith. The two were friendly rivals, each holding the same position at their respective major metropolitan newspapers. The only time I got to read Caen was when he was being quoted by Smith, which usually involved some good-natured tweak of his San Francisco chauvinism. I can only imagine that it was probably a two-way street.

  18. Loved your piece about Herb Caen. He and Arthur Hoppe taught me how to read newspapers. They provided a window outside my Sunset District neighborhood. Your material is excellent, but they were “Masters”.

  19. Herb Caen’s column is the first newspaper material I remember reading, so it’s only natural that when we moved to Calaveras County I thought the statue of Mark Twain in the Angels Camp park was Herb Caen.

    Hah! He would have loved that story! -rc

  20. I lived in San Francisco during the 1970’s. If I read nothing else in the paper, I ALWAYS read Herb’s column — had to keep up on the happenings in the City.

  21. I grew up in San Francisco reading the witticisms of Herb Caen and Art Hoppe in the Chronicle. One of my favorite “Caenisms” was about seemingly never-ending street repairs.

    The reason why they don’t put all the streets back together at the same time is because they wouldn’t fit.

  22. My journalism teacher used to bring in Caen’s columns the next day – after he received his copy. He told us once that “Herb Caen is the only known existing human to use ‘noisome’ correctly. Go thou and do likewise.” I’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for old Herb Caen.

    I’ll join you — Vitamin V on the rocks! -rc

  23. TOO BAD Caen wasn’t able to stay around long enough to experience Twitter — he probably would have died happy knowing there was a populist successor to his three dot journalism….

    I remember reading Caen’s column but I didn’t always have access to it — your tribute stimulated my memory cells… Before I even got to the Caen tribute I was thinking what a great item your “Freaks of Nomenclature” is…. In this issue — the free one anyway — I think you’ve outdone yourself, Randy…. Good stuff! … Thanks for sharing.

  24. Herb Caen was a great way to start the morning. I discovered him when I started school at CAL (way back when) and read him to the end. It was fun to read his style and to occasionally see mentioned a friend. He once included a bit about the insect dinner at Barrington Hall, the housing co-op for students at UC Berkeley where I “grew up”.

    This is true – a new discovery for me and one that has brightened the day. Looking forward to the next installment.

  25. It’s kinda funny.I have been using 3 dots as a pause or break. I never knew it was a real way to type. I feel so much smarter now.

    On the “Namephreaks” I had a banker named Mr. Green, He was by far the best banker I have ever dealt with. Funny how things come around.

    Read up on ellipses, and you’ll know more about “three dots.” -rc

  26. Freaks of Nomenclature? Shouldn’t that be; “freaks of namingclature”.

    Um, no. Check a dictionary. -rc

  27. Reading about the Namefreaks thing made me remember an interesting article I read a while back – people are more likely to go into a profession that relates to their name. It turns out that men are more or less equally likely to be called Dennis as Jerry or Walter, but men called Dennis are 82% more likely to be a dentist than men called Jerry or Walter. You can read more about the research here.

  28. I lived in the Bay area from 1966 to 1980 and Caen’s column was one of the great joys of living there. He loved his city and it showed. I’ve never lived anywhere else with a columnist in the same league. Thanks for the memories, Randy.

  29. I have lived in the bay area since 1965. I appeared in the Herb Caen column a couple of times. The last one was Dec. 20 years ago…he was let go after 25 years…the parting shot was…you are still invited to the Christmas party.

  30. When Herb Caen became ill with lung cancer, he went on “vacation,” always planning on returning to write his ultimate column. Unfortunately, he never did give us his parting shot about Baghdad-by-the-Bay, gourmet Velveeta (only in Chico), Berzerkeley (alternate spelling?), all the pols and swells he managed to run into in SF restaurants, or whatever else came across his desk ….

  31. I grew up reading Herb Caen. My favorite memories are the year he took fourth place in the “Herb Caen write-alike contest” at the San Francisco County Fair and one particular namephreakism: a quarterback at an Idaho high school named Steven Falls Down.

  32. Re “namephreaks”, there is an OB/Gyn in Southern California named Dr. Kuntz. Although I’m pretty sure it is pronounced Koontz, I’m sure there are those who have made the mistake of pronouncing it phonetically!

  33. Like most of the commentators before me…fond memories. I grew up in Yuba City and from a tender age…before the bridges were built…we would go for long weekends in The City. Had the good fortune to be stationed at TI twice and learned to start my day with Herb and the Chron. Like one of the earlier comments, my HS journalism teacher would frequently start the class with a Caen column. Thanks for the memories.

  34. I started reading Herb Caen when I moved to the Bay Area in 1991. Reading his column quickly became part of my morning waking up ritual along with the coffee. A while later I sent in a suggestion for the cute business names he often wrote about – It was printed and that morning I got a call from a friend who was a lifelong San Francisco area native excitedly congratulating me. I had to ask him why he was congratulating me because I didn’t know what an honor it was to have your name in Herb Caen’s column.

  35. Early sixties Caen told of an Atherton bar owner, also owner of one of those new campers. He was having an affair with his employee and was in the camper after closing.

    His wife came down from their Hillsborough home with keys to the camper. She hopped in and gave the two in the camper one wild ride ending at home, backing up against a retaining wall blocking exit of the two.

    Reporters were on hand when she released them in the morning.

    I loved that story.

  36. I loved reading your Herb Caen tribute. I too was a bay area native and loved reading Caen and another similar columnist in the Oakland Tribune; Bill Fissett. They each had their own favorites with Fissetts reference to Lil old ladies (lol), and my favorite, his intense dislike for the phone company. This dislike would urge him to use payphones using a quarter, requiring the company to type a refund check and pay postage to mail it. He would then save up checks and eventually pay his phone bill with accumulated refund checks.

    It takes dedication to be that perturbed.

    Thanks for resurrecting the memories.

  37. My mother was a San Francisco girl during the truly formative years of her life, and so–even though we lived in Hawaii–I was exposed to Herb Caen through his column carried in the Honolulu Advertiser. Though his style affects many of us even decades after his passing, there may never be another so in love with and in tune with San Francisco. The City By The Bay was so much more than just a place to live for Herb, he was passionately in love with the place and got to experience it all during arguably its most romantic period.
    I read Herb’s column until I moved away for college, then the infrequent clippings from the paper that my mother would send. His column was right next to Lou Boyd’s; a master of trivia, Lou helped us to know “more and more about less and less”. I miss them both. Thanks for the reminiscence, Randy.

    Yeah, Louie Boyd was another gem. Very much underrated, even though his column ran in 400 papers. He died in 2007 at age 79. -rc

  38. In 25 years of enjoying Herb Caen I never found a better namephreak item than when he mentioned my own dentist … Les Plack.

    Thanks for evoking some great memories of a man who made many a morning brighter for me, Randy.

  39. Thanks for sharing Herb Caen. I, too, learned to read the newspaper via Herb. He was wonderful. And merciless! lol A friend of the family, Inspector Getchel — Chinatown beat — accidentally shot himself in the keister while dining. Herb NEVER missed mention of the anniversary of that event. Just one of those Caen tidbits. He also liked to mention Sally Stanford, as I recall. Now I also realize why/how I came to begin some of my writing with bold beginnings… or all caps and :… and of course the three dots — four at the end.

    Lou Boyd had witty columns, full of trivia, but I was always disappointed that he never responded to my question of how many L.M. Boyds existed. He never responded at all. And here we were both L.M. Boyd. Sure disilusioned this “kid.” Thanks again Randy. And thanks for *always* responding to my messages, IM or what have you!

    I’m guessing it was one of those “How the hell should I know?!” reactions, since there was no way to research such a thing.

    Sally Stanford ran a bordello in San Francisco on (I kid you not) Nob Hill. Herb Caen claimed that “the United Nations was founded at Sally Stanford’s whorehouse” because the founding conference for the U.N., which occurred in San Francisco in 1945, often supposedly continued after hours in the living room at Stanford’s house of ill repute. The cathouse was closed in 1949 when it was raided by the state Attorney General, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. Brown went on to become governor (1959-1967); his son, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr, was himself elected to governor of the state (1975-1983), and is currently (yep!) its Attorney General. -rc

  40. It was wonderful to see Herb Cain remembered.

    I used to visit San Francisco frequently, and his column was a ‘must read’ there.

    Too bad he was not carried by the Internet in its current form.

  41. I first discovered Herb Caen in 1960 when I did my coming-of-age in San Francisco as a naive young woman from Idaho. His columns helped me to discover all the important things about The City: Herbert’s Sherbet Shop, Paoli’s Pinafore Room, City Lights Book Store, the back side of Telegraph Hill where I found my first solo apartment/small house, North Beach, the Black Hawk jazz club. Great memories for this Old Broad – thanks!

  42. Regarding Freaks of Nomenclature:

    My favourite is Russell Brain, an early neuroscientist. Later he was made Baron and so became Lord Brain.

    Of course, LORD BRAIN sounds like an over the top comic book villain, but that is why I like it…

  43. I still subscribe to the daily SF Chron (since 1979 or 1980) because I just can’t let go of the rag that ran Herb Caen’s column for so long. Breakfast just isn’t the same without him.

    In addition to “namephreakisms”, do you remember his collection of euphemisms for saying that someone is not very bright? (Examples: his elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top; he only has one oar in the water; he has to drop his drawers just to count to 21).

    At one point, he so tired of these dribbling in that he asked everyone to submit them so he could dispense with them all at once. As I recall, it took 3 days to run them all. I’d love to find a copy of those columns — they were a riot.

  44. My favorite Caenism was his referring to the bridges that criss-cross San Francisco Bay as “car tangled spanners”. I lived in San Francisco for 25 years and I miss both The City and Herb Caen.

  45. I remember reading Herb Caen for many years as I was growing up in Mill Valley. Herb Caen was the force that kept the Chronicle going for many years as its own quality declined. Eventually it was bought out by the Examiner (more complicated, of course) and is now a Hearst paper.

  46. In one of the Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald, the hero (McGee) makes reference to Herb Caen and his love affair with The City. It runs on for a couple paragraphs and really gives Herb a bouquet for his writings and immersion in all things S.F.

    Herb definitely had an influence on a lot of folks. -rc

  47. I was a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1960’s, and loved Caen so much I wanted a mention in the column. Since the University of California tried to weaken the student government (Associated Students of the University of California) by stopping collecting dues from graduate students, no grad students were members. I went in, paid my dues, organized myself as “The Graduate Membership of the Associated Students of the University of California”, and held a meeting of myself. A few resolutions passed by overwhelming majorities, and Caen printed them.

    Hah! Brilliant. 🙂 -rc


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