Why a Ham Sandwich?


When my brother and I were teenagers, we liked to practice non sequiturs, irrelevant statements that seemed to beggar any attempt at response. One of our favorites was “My father drives with both feet.” (This happened to be true, to the detriment of our car’s brakes.) Another was “I had a ham sandwich for lunch.” For reasons that elude me now, we found it hilarious to lob these tiny verbal grenades into conversations, particularly with elders.

The ham sandwich has made a recent appearance, thanks to Robert Mueller III’s recent impaneling of a grand jury, on the president’s favorite TV show, “Fox & Friends,” where Jeanine Pirro said, “Look, I was a prosecutor for 32 years. You can indict a ham sandwich.”

That particular expression, indict a ham sandwich, was coined in 1985 by Sol Wachtler, the later disgraced chief judge of New York State. Wachtler was in favor of scrapping the grand-jury system. District attorneys had so much power, Wachtler argued, that “by and large” they could get grand juries to “indict a ham sandwich.” His remark was made famous just two years later by Tom Wolfe, whose Bonfire of the Vanities quoted Wachtler in discussing the poor chances of its guilty protagonist, Sherman McCoy.

Why a ham sandwich? Wachtler later told columnist Barry Popik that he wished he’d made it a pastrami sandwich. But pastrami has had nothing like the slang career of ham when it comes to sandwich expressions. Urban Dictionary lists more than two dozen of them, most unfit to print here. But among the non-vulgar expressions it features, we find:

  • In police lexicon, an untainted handgun ready to plant on an unarmed suspect who’s been shot;
  • In frat-bro lexicon, a series of shots — dark, light, dark — drunk in succession and followed by the cry “Ham sandwich!”;
  • In street lexicon, a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, ham apparently taken from Brougham;
  • In bullying lexicon, an overweight girl who has lost all her self-respect;
  • In stereotype, a thing to be attacked and inhaled, e.g., Willy was on it like a hobo on a ham sandwich.

My own sense is that it’s the half-rhyme of ham with the sand of sandwich that makes the phrase attractive as an idiom. After all, See you later, alligator never had anything to do with the tendency of alligators to depart; it had to do with the rhyme. Ditto Whatever floats your boat, Cruisin’ for a bruisin’, and the use of morning glory to mean a horse who fades out by the end of the day.

It’s possible that the ordinariness of a ham sandwich has something to do with its slang ubiquity also, but while ham is generally inexpensive, I suspect bologna and peanut better occupy lower rungs in sandwich-world. Maybe the word itself is fun to say — think about ham it up (traceable to “The Ham-Fat Man,” an 1863 minstrel show); ham radio (shortened from amateur); ham-handed (another half-rhyme). When Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird, dresses for Halloween at school, she’s actually supposed to be representing one of the county’s agricultural products, and the teacher attempts to call her to the stage by yelling “Pork!” But her awkward costume is helpfully, and humorously, labeled ham — and that very humor sharpens the subsequent scene where the children are attacked on their way home.

And though not kosher, a ham sandwich, like Scout, is by its nature innocent. That’s the point of Wachtler’s comment — that a grand jury could indict an entity that lacks even the agency to commit wrong. That wasn’t the case for Sherman McCoy, and there are plenty of bets being laid that such will not be the case with whomever Mueller’s grand jury may indict.

As with my colleague Ben Yagoda’s post last week, I fear that unpacking the peculiarities of an expression used by or about an administration that seems to be barreling toward Armageddon may be missing the more Orwellian aspects of the language to which we’re all subjected these days. But ham sandwich is still fun to say. I had one for lunch.

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