July 5, 2015
Topic for an American holiday weekend: How did the Vienna sausage come to be associated with a person who performs dangerous or showy stunts? Or, for that matter, with a general exclamation of excitement or appreciation? The Vienna sausage I’m talking about is, of course, better known as a wiener, which, I’ve explained with extreme patience on at least one prior occasion, a common German idiom for a food item known to be associated with a particular city or region. Perhaps it would be patronizing to go on and explain that, of course, we speakers of Americanized English do not typically use the word ‘wiener’ to describe someone who is performing a dangerous or showy stunt, though it would not, in fact, be inappropriate to describe such a person with the comment, “What a wiener!” To do that would sound a note of disapproval not necessarily connoted by describing the said performer as a “hot dog.”
In short, “wiener,” bad. “Hot dog,” good, or at least neutral.
This general lack of parallelism between the usage of ‘wiener’ and ‘hot dog’ would be even more sharply observed in the case of celebratory exclamation. No self-respecting red-blooded American boy would, upon sight or anticipation of some stimulating and broadly pleasant opportunity cry out “Wiener!” in breathless expectation of exceptional delights to come. In deference to my own limited outlook, I will not comment as to whether a self-respecting, or for that matter red-blooded, American girl might ever make such an interjection. The mind spins in contemplation of such a possibility. But, to foreclose entirely the reader’s opportunity for imaginative completion of the thought being developed here, we know exactly what is meant when someone (male or female) yells “Hot dog!” on the occasion of some joyous or otherwise festive occasion. Imagine, if you will, the Minnesota Twins’ fan after Torii Hunter has connected with a 99-mile-an-hour fastball and sent the spheroid rollicking over the left field fence. Or that member of the gluten-free infused beet generation upon being presented with steaming plate of kale sautéed in peanut oil and sesame seeds. “Hot dog!” either might scream.
In short, “Hot dog!” good; “Wiener!” incoherent, confusing and possibly a little disturbing.
And so to return to our framing question, how did these peculiarities of usage come about? Being neither a linguist nor dispositionally inclined toward actual research, I usually just make up the answers to such questions when writing the Thornapple Blog (or at least I hope my readers can tell when of a Sunday I become consumed with such insouciance). But wouldn’t anyone, or at least any non-vegetarian, on being presented with a steaming Vienna sausage in a bun with mustard, relish and onions be driven by underlying biological drives to shout “Hot dog!” And given this propensity, wouldn’t it be natural to go on and associate that usage with a spectacular and ostentatious display of daring-do? And isn’t that why God gave us vegetarian hot dogs, in the first place? I think so, at least.
In short, “hot dog,” good; “wiener,” irrelevant to any July 4th weekend celebration.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University