Traders

When I go home to San Francisco, I always seem to end up at a place called Trad’r Sam. It’s a dive bar that specializes in fruity Polynesian drinks.

Across the Bay is a restaurant that my parents love, Trader Vic’s, which is reputed to be the birthplace of the mai tai.

And we’re all familiar with Trader Joe’s. It first opened in Pasadena. But a clerk at the Trader Joe’s in Union Square told me that their busiest store, by far, is on Masonic Ave. in San Francisco.

I’m fascinated by the use of “Trader” as an honorific. It sounds respectful, but also kind of sarcastic, since it echoes other, more estimable honorifics like “Mayor,” “Doctor,” and “Judge.” I’m guessing it used to apply to seafaring merchants on the Pacific Rim who trafficked in sundry goods, especially in large port cities like San Francisco. If anyone has any information about its origins, please let me know.

The OED defines “trader” as “one whose business is trade or commerce, or who is engaged in trading; a dealer or trafficker.” The word is first recorded in 1585. But its real heyday was from the 1830s to the 1880s, when it could either refer to a person, or to a “vessel engaged in trading; a trading ship.” This makes sense in relation to Admiral Perry and his famous “opening” of Japan to the West, which took place in 1854 and precipitated a flurry of commercial trade in the Pacific.

The present-day instances of “Trader” originated later, from the 1930s to the 1960s. That’s when the United States was going through its Polynesian craze. The ukulele and “surf guitar” had a big effect on pop music; Hawaiian shirts came into fashion; tiki-style drinks invaded bars. The musical South Pacific debuted in 1949. Hawaii became a state in 1959. Trader Vic’s opened in the 1930s and peaked, as a chain of restaurants, in the 1950s and 60s. Trader Joe’s opened under a different name in 1958, and changed its name in 1967. The Beach Boys even recorded a song called “Trader.” It’s not very good.

So it seems fair to say that when you stand in line at Trader Joe’s, order the crab rangoon at Trader Vic’s, or get sloshed on Singapore Slings at my local bar, you’re tapping into a linguistic tradition that goes back to the mid-20th century… and that tradition, in turn, goes back to the mid-19th century.

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4 Comments

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4 Responses to Traders

  1. Carrie M

    This etymological exploration deserves to have been undertaken while sharing a scorpion bowl at Trad’r Sam. And do you have an explanation for the wonderful watering hole’s missing “e”? Perhaps a pirate stole it?

  2. It’s interesting (maybe?) to think of the professions that get turned into signifiers of address. Doctors, nurses, teachers – yes. Artists, bakers, athletes – no. The other day someone (who knew my name) tried to get my attention by yelling, “Hey, librarian!” I’d say it has something to do with cognitive authority, except that dentists and pharmacists aren’t usually addressed as such in common speech, so I suppose it remains a riddle.

  3. Ted S

    Just came across this article. Being from San Francisco, the Trader [first name] thing has always bugged me. Prior to Trader Vic’s (and it’s numerous copycats) I can’t find any references to historical figures, literary characters, etc., who actually used Trader as a title. Any update??

  4. Ted — no, unfortunately I wasn’t able to find anyone in history or literature with a Trader name who predated these businesses, either. Which is interesting in its own way — if we assume there were real traders who trafficked around the Pacific Ocean, then their name and occupation sort of slipped into mainstream businesses before any of them got famous as an individual.

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