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, which 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. All this suggests that the traditional etymology is apocryphal.
Sausages have fallen in price one half, since the dog killers have commenced operationsThe first printed references to “hot dog” occur in the 1890s. On Sept 28, 1893, the Knoxville (Tennessee) Journal displayed the term, and earlier, on May 20, 1893, the New Brunswick (New Jersey) Daily Times had an article that related how the shore town of Asbury Park had passed a by-law to fine “hot-dog peddlers.”
But the term “hot dog” only became popular because of a reference in Yale Record of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. In 1895. Apparently the word “dog” had been a university slang term for “sausage” for at least a decade by then. 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.
By this time, there had been accusations that sausage-makers were “dogging” their product for more than half a century. 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 canine constitution of the sausages by the middle of the 19th century, it is not surprising that researchers have found earlier references to the term “hot dog.”
In fact, lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported in his Word Routes column some years ago that law librarian Fred Shapiro of Yale University found this entry in the Dec. 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 with 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.” Shapiro’s discovery is important because it demonstrates that the term hot dog had some print currency before it was adopted by students at Yale
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 the July 4th festivities you intrepid carnivorous gladiators, and don’t forget to pack plenty of Zantac and Gaviscon.
Howard Richler’s book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published by Ronsdale Press next spring.