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When Did LACMA Become “LACMA”?

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Google has released version 3.0 of its Ngram Viewer, the web app that lets users trace the use of words and phrases in books. I used it to ask: When did L.A.’s encyclopedic art museum become “LACMA”?

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened in 1965, people didn’t know what to call it. That six-word name did not trip easily off the tongue. A c. 1965 postcard (with the reflecting pools it cannot be much later) calls it the Los Angeles Art Museum. The title of Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68) is evidence that “Los Angeles County Museum” was another accepted contraction. But as far as I can tell, the acronym LACMA was never used in press coverage of the museum’s opening and early years.

Here’s the Ngram viewer’s chart for “LACMA.”

Evidently “LACMA” hardly existed before the early 1970s, and usage (at least in books) increased steadily through about 2005.

I also tried “Los Angeles Art Museum” and “Los Angeles County Museum.” (Ngram Vewer permits phrases of five words at maximum.) The  chart below suggests that many were calling the institution the “Los Angeles Art Museum” before the widespread adoption of “LACMA.”

Some still find “Los Angeles County Museum of Art” an awkward name, not only for its eleven syllables but for the word county, which American usage links to fairs with pig races and deep-fried Snickers. It seems we’re stuck with “County” because it’s county and not city funds that supplies a large share of LACMA’s budget.

A more graceful name might be the Los Angeles Museum of Art, or LAMOA for short. But both that name and acroynm are already taken by an alternative space in Eagle Rock.

One new feature of Ngram Viewer is that it lets you search for usage just in fiction. Here is a chart of LACMA’s mentions in novels and short stories.

Apparently LACMA had a literary moment around 1990 and has dropped off since. But as far as fiction goes, it can’t compete with a nearby attraction. The Ngram Viewer can’t say whether the rise in fictional mentions of the redundant “La Brea Tar Pits” represents the birth of a postmodern metaphor—or the death of copy editing.

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  1. by Steve Sprague

    Having come into the art world in the seventies, before corporate branding and acronym frenzy became the norm, I can tell you there was no LACMA, or as I’ve hear it pronounced, LAHKMAH, just the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was cumbersome and off-putting to say, so everyone I knew just called it “The County,” as in “did you catch the Rothko show at the County?”

  2. Speaking of “county” evoking events full of agricultural displays, livestock and deep-fried food, pronouncing the acronym of “LACMA” as “lack-ma” instead of “lock-ma” has always bothered me. “Lack” sound like a lack of something (eg, lack of a really good collection of art or enough money to create that) while “lock” sounds like something that has a firm grasp on the situation.

    Regrettably, “lack-ma” is more correct since the first syllable of “Angeles” does have a short-vowel “A” sound, not an “ahh” sound. (Although perhaps a posh Britisher might say “Los On-geles.”) Nonetheless, in regards to LA’s major general art museum, I still find myself calling it “lock-ma.”

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