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Hamburger semantics

The students in my class were arguing a question of semantics: is a hamburger a sandwich?

One student noted that the menu designer at the restaurant where she worked couldn’t decide if a Chicken Burger should be listed under Hamburgers or Sandwiches. Another student invoked the USDA’s definition of a sandwich as “meat or poultry between two slices of bread.” The discussion in class got surprisingly heated, with raised voices and an expletive hurled. People feel strongly about meanings and their burgers.

Not long afterwards, two friends were arguing a point of usage on Facebook. One asserted that “Words have a meaning – which facilitates clear communication among participants in a language – or they do not.” The other countered that “Words don’t have a meaning. Most words communicate many different things.” And she gave the example of the polysemy of the word “sandwich.”

Words do communicate many different things and their meanings shift over time. The two discussions made me hungry to address the semantics of words like “sandwich” and “hamburger,” which turn out to be a particularly good test kitchen in which to explore the evolution of words.

“Sandwich,” of course, is an eponym from the title of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu (1718–1792). It refers to “an item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with meat, cheese, or other fillings between them, eaten as a light meal.”  It can also mean “something that is constructed like or has the form of a sandwich” (according to the Oxford Living Dictionary). The first definition gets extended a bit in usages like “open-faced sandwich,” where the filling is not actually between the bread, and in “club sandwich,” which involves more than two pieces of bread.  The second meaning of “sandwich” gets extended metaphorically in “sandwich generation” and in the slang expression, “a knuckle sandwich.”

Food historians trace the term “hamburger” to the German immigration of the nineteenth century, and according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Delmonico’s restaurant in New York offered a Hamburg Steak as early as 1834. Cookbooks soon featured the Beefsteak à la Hamburg and the Salisbury Steak, pioneered by the Civil War physician, James H. Salisbury.

Hampered for a time by early twentieth century fears of ground meat (think Upton Sinclair and The Jungle), hamburgers on a bun became popular as fair food in the early twentieth century and took off after 1921, popularized by the Kansas-based White Castle restaurant.

The rest is culinary history.

By the 1930s, “sandwich” was being omitted and “hamburger” was no longer an adjective modifying “steak” or “sandwich,” but a noun in its own right. What’s more, “burger” was becoming a productive word part.

And linguistic history as well.  The term “Hamburger Steak” lost ground to “Salisbury Steak,” which became the more common way of referring to beefcakes with gravy instead of buns. According to H. L. Mencken in The American Language, the term “Salisbury Steak” was helped along by the World War I fervor for Americanizing German food words.  However, the word “hamburger” (sometimes without the –er) prevailed as the name of the beef patty in a bun, and as early as 1916, we can find menus listing the “hamburger sandwich,” which is how White Castle featured it as well.

By the 1930s, “sandwich” was being omitted and “hamburger” was no longer an adjective modifying “steak” or “sandwich,” but a noun in its own right. What’s more, “burger” was becoming a productive word part. The journal American Speech documented blended neologisms like cheeseburger, chicken burger, and wimpy burger (after the character J. Wellington Wimpy in the Popeye comic strip), as well as the turkey burger and the lamburger. It seemed that “-burger” could be used with all kinds of foods served hamburger-like on a bun: clam burgers, shrimp burgers, fish burgers, there was even something called a nutburger (described as a nut and meat sandwich). What was blended, linguistically, with burger could indicate toppings (cheeseburger, egg burger, bacon burger), composition (rabbit burger, mooseburger, veal burger), or style (California burger, Texas burger, twinburger).

With so many linguistic combinations ending in “burger,” the clipped version came to be mostly used as to refer generically to hamburger-style sandwiches—patties on buns with condiments and garnishes. On menus today, “Burger” is often used as a heading that includes hamburgers and various other burger-like sandwiches as well. One local eatery in my town offers “ALL KINDS OF BURGERS” and below that heading lists HAMBURGER, TURKEY BURGER, GARDENBURGER, SEABURGER (fresh Oregon snapper fillet charbroiled ), and a double beef patty SUPERBURGER.

So is a hamburger a sandwich?  If a sandwich is two pieces of bread with meat between them, a hamburger qualifies as a sandwich (John Montagu would probably have loved them as much as J. Wellington Wimpy does). But if we think of a hamburger as a round patty of ground beef typically served on a bun, it becomes less sandwich-like and more of an independent semantic category. A hamburger is like a thumb in that regard: a thumb is both a finger (we have ten of them) and something more.

Bon appétit.

Featured image credit: “Le Jour ni l’Heure 3275 : L’Invention du hamburger — Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770, Abraham et les trois anges, c. 1770, Prado, dét., samedi 3 mai 2014, 17:38:11” by Renaud Camus. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Rudy Troike


    A nice discussion of the evolution of this cultural item (now category!). Some years ago, I stopped at a semi-rural DairyQueen-like place in Illinois, and the car-hop (this dates the event) gave me a menu which listed a hamburg for $.25 and a hamburger for $.35 (alas, the cent symbol is no longer on the keyboard). Not being too hungry and not having much cash, and being curious about the distinction, I ordered the hamburg, and found that it consisted of a ground beef patty in a bun. When I inquired what the difference was, and was told the hamburger had lettuce, tomato, and mayo on it.
    The story of the (ham)burger should be told along with that of the weiner.
    Always glad to read your blogs here.


  2. Richard Larson

    You should have a look at “Living Words” by Peter Ludlow, where this case and others related to it are nicely discussed.

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