I could have told her that would never work

One of the great questions of the Internet Age is, “Is a hotdog a sandwich?” It has never been satisfactorily resolved, but Talia Levin boldly submitted the question to a battery of academics. You know what the result had to be, but you might as well read it just to witness the chaos for yourself.

The one answer I liked was from Mark Crimmins, a professor of philosophy at Stanford.

Any well-defended answer to that would take many pages and encompass so many (great, interesting) issues about language. Still, I’d like to offer something to your reader. If you think what counts as a “sandwich” is unclear or somewhat arbitrary, then you had better examine in that light whatever principles you take to be important about sandwiches. Similarly for “baby,” “woman,” “conscious,” “intelligent.” Are you sure that the (perhaps unclear) applicability of these ordinary-language terms marks what is crucial to the distinctions carved by your prized principles?

Categorical mushiness, that’s what I like. All the definitions are fine, the only mistake you can make is expecting simplicity from complexity.


  1. says

    Its easy enough to dodge the question (honestly) by pointing out that “being a sandwich” is a vague concept (like “baldness” or “a pile of sand”) – vague concepts do not switch into clean binaries, they fall on a continuum. A person is more or less bald, or less bald than another – we compare vague concepts against eachother. Is Trump more or less bald than king Charles, etc. is a hot dog more or less sandwichy than a peanut butter and jelly, or ham and butter on a baguette?
    It turns out that a lot of things are arguable and fall on a continuum. It turns out that reality is pretty subly graduated and we use language to imply division and discernment where there are gray areas.

  2. Silentbob says

    I really have come to loathe essentialism.

    Essentialism is the idea that a hotdog (for example) either has, or lacks, essence of sandwich – however essence of sandwich may be defined.

    This seems such superstitious nonsense to me.

    Nothing has, or lacks, essence of sandwich. That doesn’t exist. In a metaphysical sense nothing “is” or “is not” a sandwich. There are only things it makes sense, or does not make sense, to call a sandwich.

    I believe my philosophical position is called nominalism, but I’m no philosopher. Nominalism is Latin for “name-ism”. That is, we give things names to describe them – the names do not arise from some innate essence.

    Nominalism in Metaphysics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    According to legend, the Earl of Sandwich, refusing to leave his card game, told a servant to bring him a piece of meat between two pieces of bread.

    A hot dog therefore meets the original definition of the term, except perhaps for the vegetarian/vegan variants, and the possibility that the Earl himself may have reserved the word for members of his own family.

  4. raven says

    These days you also have to ask an AI.

    You won’t get a better answer but you will get a mix of vagueness, wrong statements made with confidence, and hallucinations.

  5. ANB says

    A hot dog is a sandwich; a sandwich is not (necessarily) a hot dog.
    Justice Potter’s famous remark regarding porn may apply here.

  6. drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon says

    I just heard of this discussion last night, and my take was hot dogs are a sandwich. If you surround something with some sort of bread, it’s a sandwich. We do a spicy beef sandwich at my work that is essentially a ‘Chicago’ style hot dog with sliced beef instead, and a larger bun. Still called a sandwich. And typing the word sandwich so many times makes it look weird, and has me doubting spellcheck…

  7. Rich Woods says

    This is trivial. The real question lies in when is something a sandwich and when is it a butty. Also whether Jaffa cakes are actually biscuits.

  8. Rich Woods says


    Especially when they’re more often made out of chicken rather than dog.

  9. imback says

    @Pierce R. Butler, #3, I suppose the counter to that is a hot dog bun is not two slices of bread but a roll that has been partially sliced.
    @larpar, #5, there you go! Is a sandwich defined by its gametes, or is it defined by the specific form of the meat found between its sheathes.

  10. robro says

    What’s the meaning of meaning? I wrestle with this kind of question with two of my colleagues all the time. They have PhDs in philosophy and are working in the tech industry as “ontologists” which involves identifying and organizing the semantic meaning of information, usually with the aid of NLP. Interesting for 10 minutes.

    Deciding whether a hot dog is a sandwich is probably less important than whether you would eat one. Personally, I would not usually indulge because I distrust manufactured food. However, yesterday we did share a small cup of Yoplait which says it’s yogurt but was an odd pink color, no information about active culture, and lists “bio-engineered ingredients” in it’s ingredient list. We wondered what “bio-engineered ingredients” means? We still ate it.

  11. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    HOT DOG (noun): A length of unspecified meat or meat-like substance placed in a bun, often with condiments. Meant to be consumed only in a ballpark whilst two teams play baseball on the field.

  12. cjcolucci says

    The Food Network series The Sandwich King had an episode on hot dogs (also one on hamburgers). That’s good enough for me.

  13. kenbakermn says

    I think trying to decide whether a hotdog (or hatdag, as they say in Chicago) is a true sandwich based on well-defined criteria is an effort doomed to failure.

    To see what I mean, think of how to define what is and is not a continent. Why is Australia a continent but not Greenland? Why is Europe a continent? What it boils down to is, a continent is a land mass that geographers have agreed to call a continent. Other than that there are no other firm criteria that apply consistently to all continents.

    The same principle applies to sandwiches. A sandwich, ultimately, is any food item that geographers, sorry, I mean culinographers, agree to call a sandwich.

    That said, I’ll fight anyone who claims an open-face sandwich is a true sandwich.

  14. patricklinnen says

    A pizza is not a sandwich, but an open-faced sandwich is classed as such. The classic French Onion soup topped with a cheese laden buttered slice of crusty bread is still a soup, but parts of the UK is known for putting baked beans between two pieces of toast and calling that a sandwich. Are gyros/donners in pita pockets considered sandwiches, or does the pita need to be not a pocket but 2 separate layers?

  15. Hemidactylus says

    A hot dog is a mutated form of sub sandwich.

    Now is an ice cream sandwich a sandwich?

  16. Hemidactylus says

    People have similar issues thinking chili peppers, tomatoes, pistachios, or corn are fruit.

    Hot dogs are sub sandwiches as popcorn is fruit.

  17. says

    @#3, Pierce R. Butler:

    Actually, the legend is that the Earl of Sandwich ordered his butler to bring him something he could eat while continuing to play cards; any creativity involved was on the part of the servants. But by that test, “a sandwich is something you can eat one-handed so that you can continue to gamble the family estates on easily-fixable games of chance”, a hotdog is a sandwich.

  18. microraptor says

    IIRC, there was once a lawsuit over whether or not a burrito counted as a sandwich.

  19. dbarkdog says

    SilentBob nails it with essentialism. It lies behind the creationist argument that after all manner of mutation and selection, a cow is still a cow. I love the theological application. In the normal course of events, matter can change its accidents while maintaining its essence, but in the miracle of the Eucharist the bread and wine retain their accidents while their essence becomes flesh and blood. Incidentally, that capitalization is not mine. The Apple iOS must be catholic

  20. says

    What about an inessentialist argument, namely “they have a word ‘hot dog’ that is different from the word ‘sandwich’ because we acknowledge that they are distinct.” If a hot dog were a sandwich we would order “a Vienna sausage sandwich on a brioche bread baguette with chili and onions” or whatever.

  21. Hemidactylus says

    larpar @23
    Cow’s milk or soy’s milk? I don’t consider the milk of oats because that’s just hideous and there should be a biblical injunction similar to “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” when making oatmeal soup for breakfast.

    I do appreciate your thinking outside the cereal box.

  22. Hemidactylus says

    Wow wikipedia introduces a minefield:

    In the 21st century there has been considerable debate over the precise definition of sandwich, and specifically whether a hot dog or open sandwich can be categorized as such. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are the responsible agencies. The USDA uses the definition, “at least 35% cooked meat and no more than 50% bread” for closed sandwiches, and “at least 50% cooked meat” for open sandwiches.[4] In Britain, the British Sandwich Association defines a sandwich as “any form of bread with a filling, generally assembled cold”, a definition which includes wraps and bagels, but excludes dishes assembled and served hot, such as burgers.[5]

    See: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/sites/default/files/import/Labeling-Policy-Book.pdf

    Which calls burritos (and some fajitas?) “sandwich-like” and calls frankfurters and hamburgers with buns “sandwich type”. Weird hedging there.

    So under the US definition grilled cheese and PBJ are excluded? The Brits exclude hamburgers?

    In terms of how terms evolve hot dogs and hamburgers have become their own highly distinctive things in the popular mind, like how birds are distinguished from dinosaurs. So it seems weird to think of either as a sandwich as most people aren’t thinking of a fruit product when eating popcorn.

    My favorite sandwich ever is a tripleta but those vary greatly in interpretation. There was a Cuban restaurant that made it more like a heavenly sloppy joe.

    I tend to think of hot dogs as the “meat” part itself…the franks. During the early days of the pandemic I was slicing franks liberally into seriously spiced up baked beans as comfort food. Not healthy. My favorite hot dog is Chicago style. Probably very tasty coffin nails. Oh well. I don’t eat them often.

  23. kenbakermn says

    A little known fact: the baker’s dozen was invented by the Earl Of Sandwich, who is often incorrectly said to have invented the sandwich. The sandwich was really invented by Hoagy Charmichael. Charmichael was also known for telliing humorous stories which were known as ‘Charmichaels’, or in the faux-Bostonian accent of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was really the Earl Of Sandwich in disguise, a ‘Chahmiccal’, or comical. The ancient philosopher Euclid misheard this as ‘conical’ and was inspired to invent geometry. The patent for geometry is currently being litigated by the law firm of Boyle, Cooke, and Frye. Euclid is being represented by White, Brown, Green, and Rosenstein in the court room of a Judge Dunn, who just wants the whole thing to be over.

  24. flex says

    So, when I make a hot dog sandwich, am I being redundant?

    Recipe for a hot dog sandwich:

    Take 2 hot dogs, slice them lengthwise in half, place them on toast, add some ketchup, a slice (or two) of American cheese, put another slice of toast on top. Microwave for 45 seconds. Tasty. Not healthy, but tasty. Can be also be made with baked beans, chili, or sauerkraut on top of the hot dogs.

  25. birgerjohansson says

    It does not matter if it is a sandwich, but does deliver enough calories to keep you working outdoors in winter?

    Since Hamburger in Swedish sounds like ‘a guy from Hamburg’, we have a dish of our own in North Sweden : a big thick slice of sausage, flat side down between two breads like a hamburger. It is called a parisare (someone from Paris). It has more sausage than a hot dog and presumably more grease and cholesterol, perfect if you are a lumberjack in need of energy.

  26. StevoR says

    Reminds me of the meme where a dog eagerly types “hot dogs” into an internet search box in one panel and and then we see the dog’s face when it sees the results..

  27. cartomancer says

    The answer is no. Stop being so bloody silly.

    While we English claim the right to define all terms, in whatever language, exactly how we want, and then expect everyone else to follow our lead, the sandwich is a quintessentially British institution While the glorious name of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, is attached to the thing, we get to tell you what it is. Go call them Freedom Wedges if you don’t like it – this is a matter of national identity, not of linguistics.

    So we’ll be having none of that truculent new-world nonsense about essential criteria and categories and all that guff. The rule is very simple. There is a fundamental type specimen for the sandwich, which all English schoolchildren will immediately recognise from years of lunchbox contents. It has two slices of bread cut from a loaf, with butter to lubricate, and a filling chosen from Ham, Egg, Cress, Cheese or Bacon. That is the Platonic Ideal of the sandwich.

    The degree to which anything else can be called a sandwich is in direct proportion to how closely it resembles the type specimen. There is some small leeway with the filling, none at all with the bread. As soon as the two-slices-from-a-loaf bit is compromised, it is no longer a sandwich. Calling it a sandwich will summon the angry ghost of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, which will follow you round for the next few months imposing a -30 penalty on all Gambling tests you are required to take and ensuring your crusts are always stale. You don’t want that, now, do you?

    A hot dog is a sausage in a roll. But is it most certainly NOT a sausage roll. Insinuating that can get you killed where I come from.

  28. microraptor says

    The USDA uses the definition, “at least 35% cooked meat and no more than 50% bread” for closed sandwiches,

    Does this mean that by USDA definition, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is not actually a sandwich?

  29. says

    Hemidactylus @20

    “A hot dog is a mutated form of sub sandwich.”

    That’s basically been my stance for some time. If a sub is a sandwich, a hot dog is basically a small wiener sub ( the wiener sub being small, not a sub for small wieners). The shape of the bread is the same, so the only difference is the filling.

  30. Matthew Currie says

    By the USDA definition lots of things would be disqualified, even a BLT, which seems like a sin against the sandwich gods.

    I’ve always kind of informally considered a hot dog not to be a sandwich, because the bun has a single purpose, whereas the bread of a sandwich, and even that of a burger, can often enough be used for other things, where few things but a hot dog will find themselves at home in a hot dog bun. You can go to some fast food dispenser and get a slab of chicken or fish in the same kind of bun a hamburger comes in. What other than a hot dog gets put into a hot dog bun? This is a weak argument, of course, but it’s a weak problem.

    I would differ with Cartomancer, because even if he might have a historical point it seems needlessly complicated and originalist to presume that subs and gyros and fishwiches and bagel concoctions and all the rest must find another name than “sandwich” because the original was made (we presume but do we surely know even this for sure?) with sliced bread from a loaf. Many things have been defined before all their variations have been invented. Must a radio have tubes?

  31. Jazzlet says

    Matthew Currie @38
    Sorry to spoil your definition, but a traditional British occasion food, bridge rolls, consists of hot dog type rolls filled with either egg and cress, grated cheese, fish or meat paste (both as disgusting as they sound), and if you were really pushing the boat out ham or tongue or cold roast beef. I have mostly encountered them at funerals or the occasional particularly dismal wedding. They can be made cheaply, and will provide a reasonable base to drink on should drinks be available. For obvious reasons they are not as popular as they once were.

  32. Tethys says

    As the word sandwich can be a noun, verb, and adjective, it appears the critical distinction is that the filling is sandwiched between two (or more) pieces of bread. Obviously, this means that hotdogs are tacos.

  33. jacksprocket says

    Rich Woods @9: if you add one chip to a hot dog, does that make it a chip and sausage butty? How much gravy to you have to put on your chips to prove you’re a northerner? And DID YOU KNOW that “jam butty” derives from “jambes utiles”?

  34. redwood says

    Strangely enough, this was hotly debated on a baseball blog I frequent (Viva El Birdos for the St. Louis Cardinals) a couple of years ago and has now become a running joke for anything controversial.

  35. Daniel Storms says

    There are only two fundamental questions here. #1, Skin on or skin off? #2 Should Oscar Mayer have been boiled, grilled, steamed, or microwaved for crimes against frankfurters?

  36. Doc Bill says

    Oh, Friends, what are these noises!

    A hot dog is a hot dog, not a sandwich.
    A peanutbutter and grape jelly sandwich is a sandwich, not a hot dog.

    Sure, you can put peanut butter and jelly on a hot dog bun, but that’s a Crime Against Humanity.
    Sure, you can wrap a hot dog dog in a slice of sandwich bread, but only during a National or Local Emergency as defined by FEMA Regulation BR-549-HD.

    Sure, you can put a hot dog dog in a taco shell but it’s embarrassing to both. Just say no.

    Finally, the supreme authority, Wonder, sells “Hot Dog Buns” and “Sandwich Bread.” They don’t sell
    “Hot Dog Bread” or “Sandwich Buns.”

    Case closed. Grow up, y’all!

  37. dbarkdog says

    The abominations marketed by Wonder are not hotdog buns. Hotdog buns open from the top, not the side. I may not follow baseball, but I know what hey eat at Fenway.

  38. dbarkdog says

    The abominations marketed by Wonder are not hotdog buns. Hotdog buns open from the top, not the side. I may not follow baseball, but I know what hey eat at Fenway.

  39. says

    When I was a kid, we didn’t have “buns”. We made do with wrapping a slice of that horrible Wonder bread around a cheap wiener. Are you telling me that wasn’t a hotdog? Was it a sandwich?

    Also, we had pickled herring wrapped up in lefse. Hotdog? Sandwich? Does it matter?

  40. says

    Half a century ago, a speech professor instructed our college class that words have no meaning. Only people have meaning.

    So a hotdog is a sandwich only if served with a word salad.

  41. Louis says

    Finally, we get to the big question.

    It’s all about topology.

    If a sub (or filled baguette or pitta bread or…) is a sandwich, and it is definitionally the case that this is so, then, as it is homeomorphic, a hotdog is a sandwich.

    And so is a pizza.

    However, the class of object “sandwich” is not confined by one topological morph. It is also true that a sandwich can be formed by, for example, two slices of bread with a filling. Therefore ferrocene is a sandwich, and so is a threesome.

    Also, calzones are a type of pasty, as is the planet Earth.

    Sandwiches of all kinds are composition independent. Unless you want things to get really nasty.


  42. StevoR says

    @ ^ mikeschmitz : OTOH, if you are at a cafe and order a sandwhich and they bring out a hot dog instead, what are you going to say to them? Something like : “Sorry but I ordered a sandwhich NOT a hot dog!” QED?