Dr. Gerald Cohen, a professor of foreign languages at the University of Missouri-Rolla, has just published a 300-page book Origin of the Term ‘Hot Dog’ together with word sleuths Barry Popik and the late David Shulman.
"Popik discovered that ‘hot dog’ (hot sausage) arose in Yale slang of 1894 or 1895," says Cohen, "and it then spread quickly throughout college slang of the mid-late 1890s.
"The term was based on the popular 19th-century belief that dog meat could turn up in sausages," says Cohen, "and this belief had a basis in fact."
Dog meat in sausages? "Yes," says Cohen. "It was scandalous but true. Some butchers even hired dog killers — young toughs armed with a club who would bash any poor dog they came across and then sell the carcass to the butcher."
"College students since time immemorial have combined a keen sense of wit with occasional bad taste," Cohen adds. "Both came into play in referring to a hot sausage as ‘hot dog.’ The term at first was disgusting, but of course it gradually caught on."
Cohen has researched the origins of "hot dog" since 1978 and last year decided to compile all the material he and his colleagues have collected. He is publishing the book himself — "just 60 copies," he says. "I don’t want to be left with many extra copies. If you saw my office, you’d know why."
"The book is scholarly, and my target market is libraries, lexicographers, and anyone interested in the detailed study of slang," Cohen says. "I’ve applied the principles of thorough German scholarship to the study of a single word."
Among other things, the book presents all the early college material on "hot dog," mostly from college humor magazines, and then illustrates in detail the popular 19th century belief about dog meat turning up in sausages.
Cohen is at particular pains to refute the usual story about the origin of "hot dog" — that on a chilly April day in New York City, around 1900, Polo Grounds concessionaire Harry Stevens decided the baseball fans needed something warm to eat, invented the hot-sausage-on-a-bun, and cartoonist T.A. Dorgan drew his cartoon for the next day (dachshund-like sausages with legs) and coined the term "hot dog."
"It’s a charming piece of Americana," says Cohen. "But it’s a complete fabrication. Dorgan didn’t come to New York City until 1903, and his supposed Polo Grounds/hot dog cartoon simply doesn’t exist. He did use the term later and probably helped popularize it. But his first two ‘hot dog’ cartoons came on Dec. 12 and 13, 1906, in connection with a 6-day bike race at Madison Square Garden, not a baseball game at the Polo Grounds."
Cohen once even offered $200 to the first person who could produce Dorgan’s Polo Grounds/hot dog cartoon. Despite some intense looking by scholars who relish (no pun intended) a challenge, the elusive cartoon hasn’t yet surfaced. "It’s elusive," insists Cohen, "because it’s non-existent."
Would Cohen’s book make a nice Christmas-stocking stuffer? "Probably not," he says. "It’s a bit too detailed for that. But it does belong on the shelves of libraries."
And how is this book relevant to Cohen’s teaching? "I teach a course on etymology (it’s my main area of research), and I tell my class that even a humble slang term can be worthy of a surprisingly detailed study," he says. "I once wrote two books on the origin of the term ‘shyster,’ and the late word researcher Allen Walker Read spent several decades on the word ‘OK.’"
"Our language has a rich history, and appreciating that richness is the main purpose of my course," he adds.
"This is really an enormously interesting field — both for scholars and lay people. A lot of research has gone into the ‘hot dog’ project, but the results are comprehensible to anyone."
As for his two co-authors, Cohen calls Barry Popik an extraordinary independent scholar who has made major contributions to the study of "The Big Apple," "dude," "I’m from Missouri, you’ve got to show me," "The Windy City," "Oscar" (movie award) and many more items. Three-fourths of the material in the "hot dog" book was unearthed by Popik.
David Shulman, who died on Oct. 30, was also an independent scholar. He deciphered Japanese codes in World War II, afterwards provided the Oxford English Dictionary with thousands of antedatings, and did research in the New York Public Library every day it was open until the very end of his life. Shulman headed Cohen and Popik in the right direction for "hot dog," namely by directing them toward college slang and away from Coney Island.
Cohen’s book sells for $40 (plus $7 mailing), and anyone interested can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .