Dear Word Detective: I am a college student graduating this June. Last summer I received a grant to teach English in a rural minority village in SW China. On the 4th of July, I was explaining about American holidays. We had just finished a unit on food, so my students wanted to know what food Americans eat on the 4th of July. One of the things I told them was hot dogs. Now while some people in China eat dog meat, this minority group does not and, as a result, stared at me with horror. It probably didn’t help that, as the classroom was rather rustic, I had a collection of local canines flopped around the dirt floor and a puppy at my feet. When I tried to explain to my incredulous students that hot dogs were not made out of dog meat, they wanted to know why the food is called “hot dog.” My drawings of dachshunds and hot dogs were unconvincing and my students were so upset by the idea of dog sausages that I eventually made up a story about the summer being hot, dogs panting, and eating hot dogs, and then tied it all together in Chinese. They bought it, but I would like to have the real story, particularly because I will be spending the next two years teaching college English in China. Also, I am going back to the village next summer, and I would like to tell my former students the truth. — K., currently of Wellesley, MA, soon of Nanjing, China.
Wow. And to think I was feeling guilty over some of my funkier tax deductions. That’s a long (although very interesting) question, so we’ll have to go with a fairly short answer.
The origin of the term “hot dog” has been debated for well over 100 years, with many of the theories centering on the resemblance of the sausage in the bun to a dachshund dog as the source of the name. You’ll find many sources online and in print that credit the invention of the term “hot dog” to the early 20th century newspaper cartoonist T.A. Dorgan, who did draw at least one cartoon of “hot dogs” as dachshunds in buns in 1906.
But “hot dog” had been slang for the long sausage sandwiches since at least 1895, and the term had nothing to do with dachshunds. After years of dogged research, the indefatigable etymologist Barry Popik (www.barrypopik.com) proved that “hot dog” originated as college slang, apparently first at Yale, as a sardonic reference to the then-popular belief that “hot dogs” contained actual dog meat. Such rumors were not entirely irrational, since in 1843 there had been a major scandal in New York City when dog and other “unconventional” meats were discovered in a meat-packing plant. By the late 1850s, the “dog meat in sausage” rumor was widespread in the US, and proved so hardy that sixty years later, in 1913, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce forbade vendors from using the term “hot dogs” for their wares. But the actual consumers of “hot dogs” continued to use the name, and hot dogs today, certified Fido-free, remain one of America’s favorite foods.
Incidentally, the use of “hot dog” to mean a “show off,” as an adjective meaning “excellent,” or as an interjection expressing delight (“Satisfied customers, huh? Hot dog!”, Fawlty Towers, 1979) all also come from college slang of the late 19th or early 20th century. Apparently, to college students, hot dogs were the pizza of that era.