Thursday, July 26, 2012


(This article appears in the July/August edition of Lexpert with the title "Who Named the Dog?")

Putting the dog back in hot dog


Howard Richler

On July 4th the attention of all gourmands will be turned to the most All-American of all sporting competitions. I speak, of course, about Nathan's Hot-Dog Eating Contest held annually on Coney Island, New York. Legend states that on July 4, 1916 four immigrants partook in a hot dog eating contest at Nathan's Famous stand on Coney Island to settle a dispute as to which of the voracious gentlemen were most patriotic to their adopted land. Last year, American Joey Chestnut won his fifth title by consuming 62 hot dogs and buns in ten minutes. Over 40,000 spectators attended this cholesterol-imbibing orgiastic event and an additional 1.949 million viewers watched it live on ESPN.

As we approaching the dog days of summer and this momentous event, this is a good time to discuss the origin of one of the most quintessential American words – hot dog.

Lore has it that in 1900 sports cartoonist Thomas Aloysius “Tad” Dorgan was ingesting a sausage at the New York Polo Grounds, the baseball Giants’ home park. Since there had been rumours that canine meat was prevalent in the sausages, he dubbed his bunned lunch “hot dog.” His subsequent caricature of a dachshund on a bun got the goat of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce who instituted a policy of banning the term “hot dog” by concessionaires, insisting instead on the use of PC terms such as “Coney Islands,” “red hots” or “frankfurters.” The Dorgan etymology has been repeated by many language writers including Bill Bryson in Made in America.

There are, however, some problems with this account. Dorgan was working in San Francisco in 1900 and did not move to New York until 1903. Also, no one has uncovered the Dorgan cartoon in question. He did, however, sketch some “hot dog” cartoons in 1906 from a bicycle race in Madison Square Gardens.

The first printed references to “hot dog” occur in the 1890s. On Sept 28, 1893, Knoxville (Tennessee) Journal displayed the term and earlier on May 20, 1893, New Brunswick (New Jersey) Daily Times, had an article that related how the shore town of Asbury Park has passed a by-law to fine “hot-dog peddlers.”

The term “hot dog”, however, only became popular due to a reference in Yale Record of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut in 1895; apparently the word “dog” had been a university slang term for “sausage” for at least a decade. A lunch wagon that operated nightly at Yale was dubbed “The Kennel Club” as the humble sausage represented its specialty. A poem was written in the aforementioned newspaper entitled ECHOES FROM THE LUNCH WAGON:

Tis dogs' delight to bark and bite,”

Thus does the adage run.

But I delight to bite the dog

When placed inside a bun.

But decades before the 1890s, there had been accusations that sausage-makers were “dogging” their product. An article in New York Commercial Advertiser of July 6, 1838 quipped, “Sausages have fallen in price one half, in New York since the dog killers have

commenced operations."

Due to the supposed connection between sausages and dogs, by the middle of the 19th century it is not surprising that earlier refernces to the term “hot dog” are found. In fact, lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported in his Word Routes column last year that a law librarian Fred Shapiro of Yale University found this entry in the December 31, 1892 edition of Paterson (New Jersey) Daily Press: “Somehow or other a frankfurter and a roll seem to go right to the spot where the void is felt the most. The small boy has got on such familiar terms witth this sort of lunch that he now refers to it as “hot dog.” “Hey Mister, give me a hot dog quick,” was the startling order that a rosy-cheeked gamin hurled at the man as a Press reporter stood close by last night. The “hot dog”was quickly inserted in a gash on a roll, a dash of mustard also splashed on to the “dog” with a piece of flat whittled stick, and the order was fulfilled.”

Zimmer did some sleuthing and unearthed the identity of this hot dog purveyor Thomas Francis Xavier Morris, known in Paterson as “Pepper Sauce” Morris. Morris had previously lived in Germany where he may have learned his frankfurter flavouring formula. His 1907 obituary stated that “Besides peddling hot frankfurters Morris made pepper sauce that he supplied to many families the condiments being much sought after.”

For a while the term hot dog competed for supremacy with frankfurter, red hot and wiener but by 1910, largely due to its Ivy League connection, hot dog became the definitive term for this food.

Enjoy this July 4th gentlemen; don't forget to bring lots of antacids.

Howard's next book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts is being published by Ronsdale Press next Spring.

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