Hot Dog!

News flash in the etymological world: Two new antedatings of hot dog!

In the etymological world, prospecting for earlier instances of a word is like prospecting for gold in the geological world. You look in the online Oxford English Dictionary for the earliest known date of a word and then go data mining in the archives of old publications for something earlier.

One of the leading prospectors is Fred Shapiro of the Yale University Library. He announced his findings in the first instance earlier this year on the American Dialect Society’s discussion list, ADS-L. That got the attention of the assay office, a.k.a. Comments on Etymology, a paper and ink journal I’ve written about before. It’s published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and it’s the first draft of etymological history. The news about hot dog came in the recently arrived Vol. 42, Issue 6 for March 2013.

Shapiro, Cohen, the independent scholar Barry Popik and others  have spent decades searching back in time for the ur-hot dog. They started by refuting the legend that hot dog was the invention of the cartoonist Tad Dorgan in the early 1900s, finding it in Yale student publications as far back as 1894, in a Nashville newspaper of 1893, and in New Jersey in 1892.

Both new examples are from newspapers in Nashville, suggesting that it might have been the hotbed of hot dog. Shapiro moves the earliest known sighting of that name for a sausage in a bun back seven years to 1886.

Shapiro’s first example was a short item in the Nashville Daily American of February 9, 1891:


Two Men Who Mistreated the ‘Hot Dog’ Vendor.

Pat King and W.T. Brooks were arrested last night by Officers Russell and Howington for disorderly and offensive conduct. They were, it is claimed, worrying and cursing one of the little negro ‘weiner-wurst’ boys and became so boisterous that their arrest became necessary.


More impressive, though, is what Shapiro subsequently found in the Nashville Tennessean for November 14, 1886:

“’Hot stuff,’ ‘hot pup,’ ‘hot dog,’ sings out the fiend who carries in one hand a tin cooking arrangement, and on the other arm a basket. He is the wiener wurst fiend. It is his cries that greet you as you enter the theater and regreet you as you come out. He is the creature whose rolls make the night hideous, and whose wares make dreams that poison sleep.

“The luxury came originally from Austria. Wiener means little and generally speaking, the purchase gets a little the wurst of it. Wurst means, in English, sausage; so that when one of these peddlers says wiener wurst to you he means do you want a little sausage.

“The tin vessel which he carries is divided into two compartments. The upper is filled with water, in which are about a thousand, more or less, skin sausages. In the lower apartment is the alcohol stove that keeps the sausages hot. In the basket he keeps his rye bread and horse-radish. The sausage, sandwiched by two slices of bread which have been smeared with the horse-radish, make up the wiener wurst, which costs you a nickel.

“Since Shakespeare asserted that nectar was the food the gods lived on, it has been discovered that wiener wurst is the stuff that fattens dudes. The young men who sell the article are, as a rule, not modest.”

But why call it a hot dog in the first place? Simple enough: It’s a joke. It goes back to a 19th-century rumor that the sausages were made of dog meat.

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