Hot dog! A hot-dog hot dog, a hot-dog hot dog and that other hot-dog hot dogger hot-dogged those hot dogs from that hot doggery, but during a hot dog, one slipped on that dog’s hot dog. What a hot dog.
Believe it or not, all of the uses of the phrase "hot dog" in the previous statement mean different things. According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the word "hot dog" has had more than eight different meanings over the years, and while some of its many meanings other than the barbecue staple we all know and love have fallen out of use, you likely understood at least a little of that sentence.
Here’s a translation, in case you were wondering:
Whoa! A flamboyant gay dude, a good, successful gambler and that other greedy showoff grabbed those frankfurters from that sausage cart, but during a chase, one slipped on that pup’s poo. What an idiot.
As you can see, the phrase "hot dog" can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective and even as an exclamation. Some of its meanings are positive: excellent, flourishing or expert — but some have been used in the pejorative sense: pornographic, a showoff or a mean way to call someone gay. But, then again, what slang didn’t mean gay back then? (Seriously, there have been a lot of words used to avoid saying the actual word gay, like bananas, fruit and, yes, hot dog.)
According to data gathered by Nielsen, 944.3 million pounds of hot dogs were sold at retail stores, totaling more than $2.8 billion in retail sales for the year 2020. It appears that hot dogs, both in name and in flavor, are a staple of the American condition. So, how did we get here?
The history of the hot dog
Well, like many things that have made the United States what it is today, the hot dog emigrated here. That much is certain, but exactly how it got here is disputed and debated at just about every turn. Hot dogs are a type of sausage, and those origins are traced all the way back to before ancient Rome, and because the technique was so widely used, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who did it first. Some say the Sumerians, some say the Christians, but unless someone invents a Hot Dog Time Machine, none of us will ever know for sure. Experts assert that the technique of putting meat into an animal casing likely began because early man who downed big game needed a way to preserve the spoils of the hunt.
Fast forwarding a couple of thousand years to the hot dog’s German roots, we find ourselves in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, the village traditionally credited with popularizing the frankfurter, which is usually a thin, parboiled sausage made of pork in a casing of sheep intestine. The town’s claim to hot dog history is also disputed by fans of the late 1600s butcher Johann Georghehner, who, according to legend, created the "little-dog" or "dachshund," a common German breed of dog that looked a lot like the delicious sausages he served, in Coburg, Germany. Apparently Georghehner later traveled to Frankfurt to promote his new product, so either way, frankfurters were officially here, and its popularity spread throughout Europe.
Two centuries, countless satisfied bellies and a passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean lead us to the U.S., where the frankfurter became the hot dog during the late 1800s.
“As it turns out, it is likely that the North American hot dog comes from a widespread common European sausage brought here by butchers of several nationalities,” Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, told TODAY Food, adding that there’s also doubt as to who first served the sausage in a roll.
Mittenthal said that, in one report, an unnamed German immigrant sold frankfurters along with milk rolls and sauerkraut from a push cart in New York City’s Bowery during the 1860s, but that another claims, in 1871, German baker Charles Feltman opened the first hot dog stand in Coney Island, which closed in 1954 (although a version of it has since reopened under new ownership). “He sold 3,684 dachshund sausages in a milk roll during his first year in business,” he said.
The many meanings of 'hot dog'
Once the frankfurter’s popularity began to grow in communities in the U.S., that is likely where its name came from: as a simplification of a "dachshund sausage," which at least one TODAY reporter mispronounces every time he tries to say it. Intriguingly, we have Indiana to credit with the first printed reference of the word hot dog.
"The earliest recorded use of the term 'hot dog' to mean a sausage on a roll dates to September 14, 1884,” John Kelly, senior director of editorial for Dictionary.com, told TODAY. The term appeared in Indiana newspaper the Evansville Daily Courier, and reads as follows:
Even the innocent ‘wienerworst’ man will be barred from dispensing hot dog on the street corner.the Evansville Daily Courier, September 14, 1884
Kelly added that since this is the earliest printed record of "hot dog" being used, the term most likely originated a little bit earlier — as all slang terms take time to make their way to the printed page. There is an instance in 1881 Louisville Kentucky paper the Courier-Journal printing the words "hot" and "dog" in the same sentence, but it didn’t quite get to hot dog home base, so to speak. "It’s a wonderful fact that so many newspapers are digitized online now," he said. "That’s where we get a lot of this new evidence of early terminology from newspapers."
Up until this time, most Americans ate what they grew or hunted locally, so when immigrants like the Germans and other folks brought new flavors to the masses, their food achieved a great fondness, which is why as early as 1889, the Daily Times, a Richmond, Virginia newspaper, printed the headline "In The Hot Dog Days," where "hot dog" meant wonderful. The hot dog’s association as a popular, newfangled food around this time is likely where it began to flourish as a slang term, albeit with a dash of anti-immigrant prejudice.
"There were jokes as early as the 1860s that questioned the origin of the meat in hot dogs, although anecdotally these jokes weren’t always unfounded," said Kelly, pointing to the fact that we still have meat scandals involving hot dogs today, but to take those jokes of the typically beef or pork hot dog containing anything that barks as just that — jokes. Hot dogs as we know them today are simply an emulsification of salt, seasonings and meats like beef trimmings, pork from chops and tenderloins, chicken, turkey or a combination of them.
Kelly also added that Yale and other Ivy League colleges served hot dogs in "dog wagons" in the late 19th century, and one dog wagon at Yale was known as the Kennel Club. Thanks to a gathering of slang terms used amongst college-aged folks around the turn of the century called "Dialect Notes," much of our modern slang terms can be traced back to university campuses, and that’s where the etymological fun truly begins.
"Hot dog being used as a slang term is happening almost at the same time," Kelly said. He made sure to emphasize that word origins are tricky because they deal with fuzzy ideas coming into fruition, often coined by several different people at the same time. Take the brouhaha over the term "on fleek," for example. There is a direct record of its creation by Kayla Newman on social media, and yet the public at remained largely unclear of its origin, neglecting to give her credit when it exploded in popularity.
With that in mind, imagine yourself as an American in 1890 with brand new inventions like the stop sign, the Ferris wheel and the zipper — all invented by 1891 — coming at you every moment. You might be reaching for meaning in unusual places, too.
By the early 1890s, a "hot dog" could refer to a dandy (which is an old-fashioned term for a fashion-forward man — think just about every dude in "Bridgerton"), or a flashy, successful person. By 1894, when the term appeared in Wrinkle, a humor magazine from the University of Michigan, it had already evolved to mean a person who performs a complex skill in a showy way, especially as applied to sports. A hot dog has range.
There are complexly woven parts of American culture that made the term hot dog so popular and pervasive: college campuses, hot dog carts and, of course, baseball games, which trace their own origin to 1894. It’s said that hot dogs and other easily portable grub became popular in the stands as well as the dugout where a fork and a knife were as out of the park as a home run. This might be why by 1906, “hot dog!” was used to mean “bravo!” No word on whether or not it was used to congratulate one of the Hitless Wonders that year, but it’s clear people associated those six letters with good times.
Slang terms for hot dog take a distinct turn to a different sort of mood two decades later around the 1920s. As is common with many cultural touchstones, as concepts come into fashion, some things go out of style.
In June 18, 1922’s Ogden Standard-Examiner, a Utahan writes, “His mother is hot dog for dough but she’ll have to fight me.” This is the first reference to the term hot dog meaning overly wanting or greedy, which then became an extension of the historical perception that showoffs and flamboyant people were prone to avarice in polite society. In 1923, screenwriter and author Samuel Ornitz used the term “hot dog clothes” in his book "Haunch Paunch and Jowl" to refer to someone who was dressed in a flamboyant hat common to “show people,” or actors on the stage, as he wrote.
“Are these related? Hard to say. This is the way that slang can work,” Kelly added. “Are they unrelated? Could be. This is also the way that word origins work.”
As early as 1925, the hot dog had already become widespread enough that people immediately understood what the food was and what it looked like. This might point to why people began using its phallic shape, as widely known as the cucumber or the eggplant, to refer to the penis. By 1935, one boisterous singer named Lil’ Johnson crooned in her song “If You Can Dish It (I Can Take It)” that “You got the hot dog, I got the bun / Let’s get together and have a little fun.” Spicy.
Taking a sharp, G-rated turn, by the early 1940s, the hot dog and baseball became so intrinsically linked that in "Baseball Bugs," a 1946 Looney Tunes cartoon, Bugs Bunny can be seen eating a carrot in a hot dog bun and even without the dog’s presence, its instantly identifiable what he’s snacking on. Truly mainstream.
By the late 1960s, a time period where slang really took its wings, "hot dog" found itself used to refer to pornography, in author Malcolm Braley’s prison-set novel "On The Yard," where he refers to "hotdog books" which is later mirrored in James Carr’s autobiography about his time as a criminal, "Bad."
In this 1975 book, Carr refers to Playboy and other "hot-dog magazines" being snuck into San Quentin as contraband, but also uses the term hot dog to describe a queer man he knew as a "hot-dog guy" and "doggie daddy." Hot dog meaning "gay person" is the second most recent new definition for hot dog known, as in 1997, it was used in "Roger’s Profanisaurus" to refer to dog poo, so only time will tell if that one will catch on or there will be yet another definition to add to the lengthy list.
The hot dog effect
The hot dog’s effect on culture can be traced throughout American history, both as a food, word and cultural touchstone. But what does that indicate about its effect on our culture?
"The hot dog is a true American institution because it grew up along with America,” Mittenthal said. "Like so many Americans, it came here as an immigrant from Europe in the 1800s and spread around the country."
Mittenthal added that, since hot dogs are a food that we enjoy throughout our lives, there’s a sentimentality. "Kids love them and create memories with hot dogs, whether at ballgames or family barbecues, and as we age, we pass on those happy memories and experiences to our own children," he said.
"The hot dog is iconically American," said Kelly. "Its history is American in that it’s a food brought by immigrants and developed natively in ways that made it a kind of readily available staple food."
"Hot dogs are unique in the number of regional variations you can try, both when it comes to the dog itself and the toppings," said Mittenthal. "That’s part of what makes it so fun, is people have hot dogs that celebrate their own local cultures and customs and allows for others to sample that delicious history, all on a bun."
They’re right: Whether you’re having a Sonoran hot dog tucked neatly into a bolillo roll and topped with pinto beans in Arizona, a half-smoke spicy dog with a heaping serving of chili right on top at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., or enjoying a dog while staying far away from the ketchup bottle in Chicago, you’re having centuries of history, both foreign and domestic, right in the oh-so unique way that America does best.
"There’s something about the food item of a hot dog that, to me, feels like it has the DNA of the American experience," Kelly said. "Through simple word play, you’ve got popularization being done by young people intersecting with urban life, notions of identity, coolness, fashion and success. There’s something about the term 'hot dog,' those two syllables, those two basic words that feels very nuts-and-bolts Americana to me."