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Hot dog

Q From Alec and Edna Collins, Israel: What is the origin of hot dog as in a sausage in a roll?

A The usual story told about this comestible is that it was first sold by a food concessionaire named Harry Stevens at New York’s Polo Grounds, the home of the New York Giants, in the early 1900s. It is said that the famous cartoonist T A Dorgan (Tad) recorded these odd new things in a cartoon in the New York Journal, drawing them as dachshunds in buns, and called them hot dogs because he couldn’t spell frankfurter.

This tale is reproduced in almost every book on word histories I have on my shelves, and at many online sites, too. It seems to have come about as the result of the obituary of Harry Stevens that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on 4 May 1934, in which these supposed events were recorded; the writer may have borrowed the story from an article in Restaurant Man in 1929. There are variations: the Encyclopaedia Britannica says the first stall selling them was at Coney Island in 1916; I’ve also seen the St Louis World Fair of 1904 cited as the starting point, which takes us well away from the New York nexus of the majority view.

Hardly any of this is true.

Leonard Zwilling, of the Dictionary of American Regional English, has published a lexicon of Tad’s language (he popularised a number of phrases, such as malarkey, hard-boiled, and kibitzer, so he was worth the effort), and he did find a 1906 cartoon illustrating Harry Stevens’ hot dogs, though it was at a six-day bicycle race in Madison Square Garden, not at the Polo Grounds. However, since the first recorded use of the phrase is way back in 1895, neither Tad nor Mr Stevens could claim inventor’s rights in the name.

All this has been exhaustively researched by Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society, and a summary appears in America in So Many Words by David K Barnhart and Allan A Metcalf. The information here comes directly or indirectly from Mr Popik.

It seems that the link of dog with sausage actually goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century in the US, expressing dark suspicions about their contents. Mr Popik has even found a popular song of 1860, of which you may know another version:

Oh where oh where has my little dog gone?
Oh where oh where can he be?
Now sausage is good, baloney, of course.
Oh where oh where can he be?
They make them of dog, they make them of horse,
I think they made them of he.

What seems to have happened is that near the end of the nineteenth century, around 1894-95, students at Yale University began to refer to the wagons selling hot sausages in buns as dog wagons. One at Yale was even given the nickname of “The Kennel Club”. It was only a short step from this campus use of dog to hot dog, and this fateful move was made in a story in the issue of the Yale Record for 19 October 1895, which ended, “They contentedly munched hot dogs during the whole service”.

By one of those coincidences that one can only suspect was part of some vast and subtle linguistic conspiracy, the term hot dog had been invented about a year earlier in another context, as a term for a well-dressed young man (though it has since evolved, so that these days it suggests showing off, for example performing showy manoeuvres while surfing). This may have been borrowed from an older bit of American university slang, to put on (the) dog, to assume pretentious airs, whose first recorded use is also from Yale.

The combination of the existing and new usage seems to have been a potent one in the air of the 1890s and within a few years hot dog become the most usual term (though frankfurter and wiener are both recorded from the early 1880s, they lost out somewhat in the popularity stakes to hot dog’s native charm).

There is enormous inertia in false but fascinating stories. I’ve added my two bits on the side of truth, and perhaps one day the real story of hot dog will be in all the books.

Page created 17 Feb. 2001

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Last modified: 17 February 2001.