Investigating the origins of ‘Berserkeley’

Kevin Chan/Staff

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It’s hard to summarize the city of Berkeley’s unique nature, but the late San Francisco journalist Herb Caen gave a witty effort when he coined “Berserkeley,” now a citywide nickname that is often spelled “Berzerkeley.” Here’s an inquiry into the origin and meaning of this nickname:

Berserkeley, from a semantic standpoint, combines our city’s name with the word “berserk,” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means a “wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage” as a noun or “frenzied, furiously or madly violent” as an adjective. Another derivation is “berserkly,” an uncommon adverb that first appeared in 1963 in The Economist.

Why did Caen give our beloved Berkeley its berserk nickname? Caen’s first usage of Berserkeley that I could find was in the Jan. 22, 1958 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Caen may have also used the term when he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner throughout most of the 1950s.

Caen wrote in a pithy style referred to as “three-dot journalism” — it consisted of short blurbs on happenings in the Bay, each separated by ellipses. Caen’s January 1958 column used this format and established the setting for one of his anecdotes as “Larry Blake’s in Berserkeley.” Larry Blake’s was a Berkeley restaurant and bar — two famous scientists and “John Creedon of Cal’s Physics Dept.” walk into it. The famous names convene and Creedon lands a morbid punchline: “Well, folks, we just won World War III!” That’s all that happens before Caen begins the next anecdote.

Maybe in this story Caen is juxtaposing Berkeley’s liberal reputation with its nuclear history. The two famous scientists in question are Ernest Lawrence, namesake of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Edward Teller, both of whom worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons. So while Berkeley’s global impact includes progressive activism, world-class education and scientific innovations, some of the work from UC Berkeley-affiliated scientists has led to innovative forms of violence.

Berkeley may be a bit berserk for multiple reasons, the darkest of which is the local contribution to the “frenzied, furiously or madly violent” atomic bomb. Caen died decades ago, but there are still UC Berkeley scenarios that could be described as berserk — last year’s Milo Yiannopoulos protests, flyering on Sproul Plaza, the rage that many Bears feel while registering for classes. Was Caen onto something?

I prefer to focus on berserk as a noun. The adjective is insulting and our violent nuclear history is heartbreaking. But we could all benefit from some “great strength and ferocious courage” as we prepare to power through the fall semester — that’s the most positive spin on Berserkeley that I can muster.

Midterms will be no match for you bold berserks. Roll on, you Bears.

Nick Furgatch is an assistant night editor. Contact him at [email protected].