Archive for the ‘Eponyms’ Category


May 11, 2010

A few days ago I send a note to a friend in which I commented on postcards she’d recently sent me: received  in one day, a California touristic card sandwiched in dates between two cards with hot guys on them. Then I thought about the verb sandwich — pretty clearly a verbing of  the noun — and admired its compact usefulness in conveying a pretty complex idea.

The story starts with the noun sandwich, for meat between two pieces of bread, serving as a snack (‘a light repast’, as some dictionaries have it). OED2 cautiously reports the etymology with “said to be named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792)”, who is reputed to have ordered up some beef between bread as refreshment after a night of gambling. At first, sandwich was capitalized (“a Sandwich”), recognizing its origin as an eponym (OED2 cites from 1762 and 1771), but it was quickly lower-cased (Jane Austen 1800-01 and thereafter), with its eponymous beginnings eventually vanished from the minds of its users.

[Note: what we now call open-face(d) sandwiches apparently go back a very long way. A piece of bread (the trencher) served as a plate for meat and was then put to other uses.]

Almost immediately, there were sandwich fillings other than chunks or slices of meat, and figurative uses of sandwich quickly followed, from 1790 on; Dickens 1836-9 has a reference to a sandwich-man (but without the actual compound), and Thackeray has an 1848 quote with “a pale young man … having a lady … on each arm” — a fellow en sandwich, as Thackeray puts it. Further semantic extensions occur in the 20th century, in various specialized (mostly technical) contexts: referents not only XYX in three layers, but also with any number of alternating layers, more than two kinds of layers, for instance in laminations, and so on.

I see no evidence that anyone railed at the original innovation, the metaphorical extensions away from the world of food, or the further semantic extensions. Apparently they were all too useful for anyone to grumble about. (Think of the alternatives.)

[I'm hoping that there's a good scholarly history of the sandwich as a food (radiating from England into other lands and cultures, taking many forms in different contexts and places, including England -- think of the cucumber sandwiches in The Importance of Being Earnest), along with some account of the roles sandwiches have played in different cultures. But I haven't found any references to one. Many sites have bewilderingly long (and, alas, mouth-watering -- remember that I'm on a strict diet) catalogs describing named sandwiches from around the world, but that's not cultural history or anthropology.]

On to the verb. It took about a hundred years for sandwich to be verbed. OED2 gives the first gloss for the transitive verb sandwich as ‘put in or as a sandwich’, but then observes that the verb is chiefly used figuratively: ‘to insert (something) between two other things of a widely different character; to place (different elements) alternately’, with an 1862 cite with “a slice of good beef sandwiched between his free-trade bread”, which at least has a whiff of food about it. But the cites from 1864 on are foodless.

Again, I see no outrage at the innovation; the verb is just so damn useful.

Another digression, on the noun snack. An early English verb snack was nouned, and the noun was extended in several directions and in several steps over the centuries: ‘snap, bite, esp. that of a dog’ (now dialectal), from 1402; ‘sharp or snappish remark or jibe’, from 1555; ‘short time; a snatch’ (now obsolete); ‘share, portion, part’, from 1683; ‘mere taste, a small quantity, of liquor’, from 1685; and, finally, the only sense-family of any real currency and generality these days, ‘mere bite or morsel of food, as contrasted with a regular meal; a light or incidental repast’, from 1757, just in time for the word to be applied to sandwiches!

Of course, sandwiches long ago ceased to be only snacks, and now can serve as whole meals, even quite substantial ones. Their portability is a big plus. What did people do before the Earl (or whoever) had his inspiration?

A final digression, a little musing about the larger family of foodstuffs composed of a cooked starchy container (some wrapping may be required) for a vegetable, fruit, cheese, and/or meat filler: burritos, enchiladas, crêpes, Chinese dumplings, moo shu X in pancakes, blintzes, samosas, pakoras, schwarmas, gyros, and so on, endlessly. Many of these are, like sandwiches, finger foods, and some make good street foods because they are easily portable and can be eaten with one hand. (Omigod, this is making me hungry!) All of them have histories separate from the sandwich, and most of them are quite a lot older than the sandwich.


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