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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

OK. You may think of July 4th as Independence Day but to competitive eaters, this is the day of Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on New York City's Coney Island. It remains among America's most popular foods, the hot dog, judging by the speed with which the hot dogs disappeared at the Inskeep family reunion over the weekend in Indiana, but not many of us know why we call them hot dogs.

Our own Renee Montagne spoke with linguist Ben Zimmer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's start with what often is the fun part of these searches, and that's the misinformation of how it came to be called a hot dog.

Mr. BEN ZIMMER (Language Columnist, The New York Times): There's a bunch of myths out there. Possibly the most popular one involves a cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal named Tad Dorgan. And the story goes that around 1901 Tad Dorgan was at the Polo Grounds, which is in upper Manhattan. It's where New York's baseball Giants used to play. He was at the ballgame. One of the concessionaires was selling red-hots, these frankfurter sausages, and he had the idea to make a cartoon with a dachshund in a roll. And so he drew this picture for his cartoon.

But then supposedly he couldn't spell the word dachshund and so he just wrote hot dog instead. This has been a very sturdy myth, even though there's not bit of truth to this story.

MONTAGNE: And tell us about one man who really is given credit for being the original hot dog man.

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, there's a figure that has emerged from some recent research. Yale Law librarian Fred Shapiro, an intrepid word sleuth, has uncovered mention of hot dogs in Paterson, New Jersey in a paper from December 1892 before it shows up anywhere else as far as we know. And in Paterson, New Jersey, there was a man named Thomas Francis Xavier Morris who was nicknamed "Hot Dog" Morris who would go around - and he was a frankfurter vendor - and he would go and sell hot dogs to people when they were skating on an ice pond or at circuses or anywhere where people were gathering. And he was known in Paterson as the hot dog man.

And so it's interesting that Paterson, New Jersey might actually be the key to figuring out where this term hot dog came from.

MONTAGNE: Well, if he was written up in the local newspaper, he must have been pretty well known there.

Mr. ZIMMER: He was very well known locally and in fact he had this remarkable life going around Europe as a strongman before marrying a European woman, coming to the United States and eventually settling in Paterson. He opened a restaurant and then he started selling his frankfurters and he was known as "Hot Dog" Morris, sometimes also called "Pepper Sauce" Morris because he liked to put pepper sauce as his special condiment on the food that he sold.

MONTAGNE: So, nothing certain, as is so often the case, with the origins of language. But have you been able to pinpoint what you would consider the real origin of the hot dog?

Mr. ZIMMER: I like to think that perhaps "Hot Dog" Morris had a big role to play in popularizing it, maybe even coming up with the term hot dog. He had such an interesting life. He had spent time in Germany - maybe that gave him a special knack in the frankfurter department. And he came to Paterson, which was a city of innovation. And, you know, it would be great to think that perhaps he was the innovator in calling it a hot dog and marketing it that way.

There are other early reports of hot dogs being sold in the shore towns in New Jersey, like Asbury Park and Atlantic City. So, it could be a New Jersey origin, which appeals to me 'cause I'm a New Jersey boy, born and bred. And so it'd be nice to see New Jersey to get the credit for this one.

MONTAGNE: Ben, thanks very much.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus Online Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Hot dog. It's NPR.

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