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.

4 Responses to “sandwich”

  1. Jarek Hirny Says:

    Is it OK to call something that is a sandwich with the top layer of the bread removed still a sandwich? Say, bread, butter, lettuce, meat, salsa, finito?

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Jarek Hirny: “Is it OK to call something that is a sandwich with the top layer removed still a sandwich?”

    I don’t think I’d want to frame this as a question whether it’s OK (? permissible?) to talk this way. But it’s certainly true that people do — these are the open face(d) sandwiches I mentioned early in the posting — and the pattern of vocabulary use is a very common one: a fixed expression used with a more general meaning and also with a more specific meaning, picking out a subtype of the general case, usually the most (culturally) central or characteristic subtype.

    So in current usage, sandwich covers all sorts of things, including open-face sandwiches, but without contextual support, the word, unmodified, will be taken to refer to XYX sandwiches. So an open-face sandwich (bread topped with a filling characteristic of XYX sandwiches) is a sandwich, but an XYX sandwich is really a sandwich — a “sandwich sandwich”, as people say — and without contextual support, to refer to the XY type you need the modifier.

    There’s a big literature in lexical semantics on this pattern of general+specific reference. (In addition to cases like the one described above, with the unmodified item picking out the central members of the category, there’s another big type, in which the unmodified item ordinarily is taken to pick out the members of the category in general and the modified item picks out certain non-central members: glass ‘drinking glass’, where the word ordinarily covers all sorts of glasses, including not only those made of glass but also those made of other substances, like plastic, and to specify non-central members, you need a modifier (plastic glass).)

  3. rhhardin Says:

    Woody Allen covered the Earl of Sandwich’s invention in “Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This?” in _Getting Even_.

    …1745: After four years of frenzied labor, he is convinced he is on
    the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of
    turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all
    but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and
    encourages him. Heartened by the philosopher’s friendship, he
    returns to work with renewed vigor.
    1747: Destitute, he can no longer afford to work in roast beef or
    turkey and switches to ham, which is cheaper.
    1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecu-
    tive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest,
    mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains
    unmoved. Three slices of bread on top of one another add to his
    reputation, and while a mature style is not yet evident, he is sent for
    by Voltaire….

  4. Manwich and Beefaroni as portmanteaus | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Ok, so Manwich is a portmanteau of man and sandwich (with the parts sharing /æn/ in pronunciation, AN in spelling). Crudely, a Manwich (the count noun) is a man sandwich — that is, ‘a sandwich FOR men’ — and Manwich (the mass noun) is a sauce for making Manwiches. Semantically, the brand name is a massification of the sandwich name. (On sandwiches, see this posting.) […]

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