You may not have heard the news, but November 3rd is Sandwich Day. This delicious, down-to-earth holiday recently emerged as National Sandwich Day in the USA, and has begun to take root in other countries such as Canada, the UK and Australia.
This month’s Word Stories instalment investigates a few common words appropriate to the occasion. As you will see, the etymological layers involved are often as layered and subtle as good sandwich ingredients. After all, you’re unlikely to find sand in a sandwich, wood in a dagwood, ham in a hamburger, or (hopefully) dog in a hot dog! Our English names for these everyday items came down to us in more indirect and sometimes storied ways.
If you order a hot dog in a fast food restaurant, you can expect to get a wiener or a frankfurter on a bun. Nutritionists and food inspectors might sometimes frown at things they find there, but they’re very unlikely to find dog meat. So where does the dog part of hot dog come from? The most likely explanation is found in old stereotypes about immigrants.
As suggested by the words wiener (from Vienna) and frankfurter (from Frankfurt), hot dogs represent an American twist on German cuisine. They first appeared in New York at the turn of the 20th century, as a street food sold by entrepreneurs of German descent. The uncountable noun hot dog is attested first, as in the reference to street vendor legislation published in the Evansville Daily Courier, September 14, 1884: “Even the innocent ‘wienerworst’ man will be barred from dispensing hot dog on the street corner”. The modern countable noun (one hot dog, two hot dogs) appears soon after, though, as seen in the Knoxville Journal, September 5, 1893: “The weinerwurst men began preparing to get the ‘hot dogs’ ready for sale Saturday night”.
The ethnic connection preserved in such references to “weinerwurst men” is the key to the mystery of the dog in hot dog. As David Wilton notes in Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (2004), eating dog meat was for many years quite normal in Germany. Consumers faced with German Americans selling a new, inexpensive meat product therefore worried (or joked) that it must contain a bit of man’s best friend.
Hamburger means “a native or resident of Hamburg” in German and in English. Today, it is famous as the name for the beef patty sandwich popular in the United States and worldwide. Around the turn of the twentieth century, German and Danish immigrants to the United States worked as street vendors and popularized the “Hamburger steak sandwich” (its ostensible roots in the city of Hamburg are disputed) or “Hamburger sandwich”.
Americans recognized ground beef on bread as a very convenient and affordable kind of “street meat”, and when fast-food restaurants adopted the Hamburger sandwich (starting with White Castle in the 1920s, followed by McDonald’s in the 1940s and 1950s), it soon became ubiquitous. As the purported connection with the foreign city of Hamburg weakened, the word came to be written with a lower-case h. In the wake of World War I, anti-German sentiment inspired some Americans to rename the sandwiches outright as Salisbury steaks or sliders. The latter term was introduced to the public by the restaurant chain White Castle, and is still widely used to refer to small hamburgers.
The “Dagwood sandwich” is named after Dagwood Bumstead, the middle-class husband of Blondie in the popular American comic strip of the same name. Blondie was created in 1930 by cartoonist Chic Young. In the early 1930s, Dagwood appeared as one of Blondie’s boyfriends, and started eating gargantuan, multilayered sandwiches topped with olives on toothpicks around 1936. Dagwood’s inordinate food tastes became a defining trait and the expression Dagwood sandwich caught on as a way to describe a tiered or oversized sandwich. It is first referenced in Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1970). Metaphorical uses are also attested, as in this quote from the Grateful Dead’s guitarist Bob Weir:
Our past albums were like Dagwood sandwiches because you had to listen to them 30 or 40 times on very sophisticated equipment to hear everything we’d dub in. (Rolling Stone, June 16, 1977.)
The word sandwich is traditionally associated with the British aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (a town in Kent) and apparently a passionate gambler. It is said that he refused to leave the card table to eat, asking servants instead to bring him bits of meat between slices of bread. His snack soon became the talk of the town, known as “the Sandwich”. This anecdote is unverified and should probably be taken with a grain of salt, so to speak. The following passage in a 1772 tour guide of London may have helped canonize the legend of Sandwich’s sandwiches:
A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread… This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it. (Pierre-Jean Grosley, A Tour of London, translated by Thomas Nugent.)
In any case, the word does indeed first appear in print with a capital S like the legendary earl’s title, as seen in this 1762 entry of Edward Gibbon’s Journal: “I dined at the Cocoa Tree,” Gibbon writes, surrounded by “truly English” scions of society picking away at “a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich”.
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