Welcome to the latest installment of Mailbag Friday, our new feature for answering readers' questions about word origins. For this special Fourth of July edition, we have a very timely query from Jason B. from Wilmington, DE. "I've heard a lot of stories about the origin of 'hot dog.' What's the frank truth? I await your answer with relish."
Bad puns aside, there's no better time to ruminate on this all-American etymology, as speed-eaters descend on Coney Island, New York for the annual hot dog eating contest while the rest of the country chomps away non-competitively. There's a lot of misinformation floating around, much of it trying to link the origin of "hot dog" to Thomas Aloysius "TAD" Dorgan, a cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal. TAD, the story goes, came up with "hot dog" while attending a 1901 baseball game at the Polo Grounds, where vendors were selling frankfurters and calling them "dachshund sausages." He made a drawing of a dachshund in a bun, but unsure of how to spell "dachshund," he simply labeled it a "hot dog."
There are plenty of holes in this theory. First of all, TAD didn't even start working at the Evening Journal until 1903, and the supposed Polo Grounds cartoon has never been located. The earliest known use of "hot dog" in a TAD cartoon comes in 1906, and it accompanied an article about a bicycle race at Madison Square Garden. But what really puts the kibosh on the TAD theory is that many citations for "hot dog" have been found well before the apocryphal cartoon.
As the late word-hound David Shulman first discovered, "hot dog" was in circulation in college slang in the 1890s. Shulman's fellow word researcher Barry Popik zeroed in on the student papers of Yale University, where the purveyors of frankfurter sausages sold their wares in what the students called "dog wagons." One known as "The Kennel Club" opened in the fall of 1894. Popik found examples of "hot dog" in the Yale Record as early as October 19, 1895: "How they contentedly munched hot dogs during the whole service."
The college kids were playing on the longstanding rumors that sausages contained dog meat. As Gerald Cohen of the University of Missouri-Rolla has explained, there was some ugly truth to these rumors. "Some butchers even hired dog killers," Cohen said. "Young toughs armed with a club who would bash any poor dog they came across and then sell the carcass to the butcher." Students at Yale and elsewhere made dog-related jokes about sausage meat, and eventually the "hot dog" name stuck. Following Shulman's lead, Cohen and Popik compiled a meticulous 300-page monograph, "Origin of the Term 'Hot Dog,'" in 2004. Shulman, who passed away in October 2004, is credited as a co-author.
Since the publication of the monograph, an even earlier use of "hot dog" has been found by Popik. The Sep. 28, 1893 edition of the Knoxville (Tenn.) Journal has this: "Even the weinerwurst men began preparing to get the 'hot dogs' ready for sale Saturday night." What the exact connection is between Knoxville and snarky collegians at Yale and elsewhere remains to be determined. Since the early "dog" jokes were in such poor taste, it's possible that they didn't often make it into print, making it harder to track down the term's early use. So as Americans celebrate their independence today, let's add tasteless humor to the central features of the national character.
For more of the documentary history on "hot dog," see this page on Barry Popik's website. Got your own question about the history of a word or phrase for a future Mailbag Friday? Click here and let us know!
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer