Saturday, July 03, 2010

On Independence Day Comestibles

Although I didn't grow up celebrating United States Independence Day, save for the relatively low-key events at American Clubs in Tokyo, Taipei, and Budapest, I knew that much of the food served on those days seemed to revolve around meat: specifically hamburgers and hot dogs.

These two words, to a child with a modicum of interest in etymology, provided a conundrum: why is it called a hamburger when it contains no ham (since a cheeseburger does contain cheese), and why is ti called a "hot dog" when I was pretty sure that it didn't contain any canine meat... As I grew up, I realized that how I was thinking about "hamburger" was incorrect, since the meaning of "burger" remained unknown, but was likely related to German, and "ham" was a word from French. It seemed unlikely that there would be a creation of a portmanteau to call a food item something unrelated to its origins (and what kind of food was a "burger" anyway?).

However, I learned second-handedly that words ending with "-er" used a German kind of conjugation, and Hamburg was a city in Germany. I had also learned that "Berliner" was used to mean a "jelly doughnut" (thus making President Kennedy's statement, "Ich bien ein berliner!" simultaneously a major political statement as well as a potentially humorous statement after the fact (but I was unaware of this latter point at the time, only that the term "Berliner" could have been related to people from the city, or a food from it). Therefore, using this logic, "hamburger" could well refer to a food from the city of Hamburg. And, then I remembered that when my family would go to a particular "European-style" restaurant in Tokyo, my father would order a "Hanbaagu-steeki" (aka. "Hamburg steak"), which was a pan-fried ground beef patty (without a bun). This logic seemed to fit with my new hypothesis that a "hamburger" was a food from Hamburg.

This was later confirmed by a girlfriend I had who was from Hamburg. (All of this hypothesizing occurred before the advent of Google, Yahoo! Answers, Wikipedia, and other on-line helpful guides.) It turns out that I could just as easily have looked it up in a dictionary, but for some reason, that never crossed my mind.

The term "hot dog" still evaded me. I had heard the reasoning that it looked kind of like a dachshund, and when shortened to "dachs, one can imagine it shifting its pronunciation to "dog"; the cooked variety being (therefore) a "hot dog". I had also heard the rumor that they were called "hot dogs" because there used to be dog mixed into the meat, but I choose not to give credence to this particular rumor.

While living in the UK, I came across the term "beef-burger", which seemed to me to be an unfortunate redundancy that focused too much on the term "ham" than on the origin of the word. However, it did follow the "accepted" form of word-root substitution that created the term, "cheeseburger", and the use of the simple "burger" had become well-known in both the US and the UK, so why not call a burger made out of beef a "beef-burger" instead of the more ambiguous "hamburger"?

On a side note, I always find it funny how things get imported into different languages, especially from English. In Japan, the words for "hamburger" and "cheeseburger" are both directly transliterated into ハンバーガーand チーズバーガー; there is no inherent meaning to the characters. In Taiwan, the word "hamburger" is transliterated to "漢", but since Mandarin doesn't use an alphabet, the characters convey the meaning of "Han (like the Chinese people) fortress" (which is a little strange). The word "cheeseburger" is "乳酪堡" means "cheese-hamburger", using the Mandarin word for "cheese" as well as the transliteration of "hamburger". In Hungarian, the words for "hamburger" and "cheeseburger" are "hamburger" and "sajtburger", respectively, following the conjugation structure originally found in English, translating the term "cheese" from English to the Hungarian "sajt". What is funny (to me) in that the pronunciation of "sajt" ("shite") made for ordering a cheeseburger at McDonald's quite an honest statement, "Yes, I would like a shite-burger, please!" And I would get one without a bit of irony.

Anyway, a few years back, I came across the website "World Wide Words" -- a website that discusses the origin and use of phrases and words. Something that a word-nerd like me would like. Its entry on "burger" was quite expansive. And its entry on "hot dog" is also quite explanatory.

All of these thoughts came back to me when I saw the link on for the Hot Word Blog's entry: "It's called "hot dog" for a gross and silly reason. Plus, "hamburger" history."

Writing this post made me wonder, though, exactly how the "national cuisine" surrounding United States' Independence Day became dominated by foods that came out of Germany. Surely, a country known for having bouts of antagonism against the United States (starting with Hessian mercenaries fighting alongside the British in the American War of Independence) shouldn't be from whence our national palate derives? But then, whence? And why not? The waves of German migrants that came in the 18th century had a major impact on the culture of much of the Midwestern and Western United States. Also, foods high in protein (i.e., meat) and lipids (i.e., fat and oil) are also what we evolutionarily crave, thus making them "tasty" and "popular".

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