What ‘Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich?’ Can Teach Us About Language

Have you been asked, ‘Is a hot dog a sandwich?’ Before you laugh it off, we’ll tell you why that silly question actually poses an interesting problem.
Hot dog with ketchup and mustard

At some point in the past year or so, you may have been presented with a question: Is a hot dog a sandwich? At first, it seems innocuous. You think, Of course it’s not a sandwich, it’s a completely different thing. But then you think about the definition of a sandwich, and you realize, Hmm, I guess it’s meat inside of bread, which is technically a sandwich. Before you know it, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re arguing with some guy online named HotDogNotSandwich42.

This is an exaggeration, sure, but “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” did become part of the internet zeitgeist. It has all the elements of a good online meme: it’s frivolous, it makes people take arbitrary sides in an argument, it involves hot dogs (inherently funny) and it can be applied to lots of other foods. We decided to look into the meme to see what it can tell us about how we use language to make sense of our world.

The Making Of ‘Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich?’

“Is a hot dog a sandwich?” peaked as a meme in 2018, but its history stretches further back. According to Know Your Meme, the question first appeared on March 6, 2011, in an online poll by the food blog Panini Happy. The blog asked if a number of different foods were sandwiches, finding that most people said hamburgers were a sandwich, but crepes were not. Hot dogs, however, were firmly in the maybe camp. And thus an argument was born.

In the following years, the question bounced around, appearing in various places. The question has been tackled by the New York Department of Taxation and Finance in 2011 (which declared hot dogs are a type of sandwich), the Merriam-Webster blog (which agrees it’s a sandwich) and The Takeout, which asks celebrities like Tom Felton and Mara Wilson if they think hot dogs are sandwiches (both in the “no” camp, for the record).

Perhaps the climax of the meme, however, was when a user made a full diagram explaining how different beliefs about sandwiches can lead to different conclusions about what a sandwich is:

Sandwich Alignment Chart

And at this point, it will seem like this is all ridiculous, and that this is all for someone who has too much time on their hands. But there are important lessons here about how our brains categorize things. How do we look at something and declare “That’s a sandwich” and “That’s not a sandwich”?

Memes Of Ambiguity

To learn more about the hot dog-sandwich question, we can look at two other memes that we have deemed “Memes of Ambiguity.” You know, because it sounds dramatic, and also because these memes hinge on a fundamental ambiguity. And yes, you’ve probably heard of and gotten sick of both of them, so we’ll keep this short.

The Ambiguous DressThe first is The Dress, or that image of a dress that people argued about because some people thought it was a white-and-gold dress, while others saw a blue-and-black dress. The reason for the divide had to do with visual perception. Basically, your brain processes light and color by trying to figure out what the true color of something is, regardless of how much light is shining on it. For some reason, the image of the dress straddled a boundary, so different people perceive it as different dresses.

Similarly, the Yanny-Laurel meme — based on a short audio file — was caught in this boundary of experience that caused some people to hear “yanny” and other people to hear “laurel.” The audio file itself was explicitly a recording of someone saying “laurel,” but it was a “noisy” file with a number of different sound frequencies. If your brain locks onto the lower frequencies, you’ll hear “laurel,” and if it focuses on the higher frequencies you’ll hear “yanny.”

What makes these memes so compelling is that they take something that we think should have a clear answer — what color something is, or what someone is saying — and shows that they’re actually more complex. Even in “objective” reality, there can be ambiguity.

What does this have to do with hot dogs? Well, it’s another case of this ambiguity. Unlike in the other two memes, however, there is more at play than just observing something and disagreeing on what was observed. With the hot dogs, it can seem like deciding whether they’re sandwiches or not is a surface-level opinion. They either fall under the label “sandwich” or they don’t. Yet, there are complex cognitive processes that come into play here.

What Hot Dogs Can Teach Us About Language And The Brain

How humans label things is an important linguistic process. What makes one thing a sandwich, and another not a sandwich? Sure, there are plenty of obvious labels out there — you’ll never confuse a rock with a piano — but the world is full of split-second decisions. How the brain categorizes things has been a subject of study for a very long time. Categories are also one of the most fundamental features of the human brain.

As you look at the world around you, your brain is constantly grouping things into categories — car, human, tree, edible, tall. There are supercategories and subcategories, and there’s still not a full consensus on how exactly categorizing works in the brain. There are classical theories that stretch all the way back to Plato, and more modern theories that explain how the brain looks at features to fit objects into particular molds. It’s a hot topic in cognitive linguistics, because these labels exist in spoken language, but also exist in more abstract mental ideas.

All of this is to say that “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” seems to break the brain’s categorizing system. At least a little. There is a lot of cognitive science at play here that we won’t dive into, but this case (in an admittedly silly way) can show what happens when the brain’s way of categorizing fails to come to a quick and easy solution. You can try to justify why it’s a sandwich or not — What are the ingredients? Is a bun the same as two pieces of bread “sandwiching” a filling? What’s a sub, then, if not a sandwich? Is a hot dog a teeny-tiny sub? — but the point is the automatic decision process your brain goes through when categorizing things has to take a momentary break.

All of these Memes of Ambiguity together teach us an important lesson: don’t always trust your brain. While your cognitive self is truly a marvel of evolution, taking in huge amounts of audiovisual data to construct a coherent whole that you can then transform into a language for yourself, this process is imperfect. Hot dogs are a lower-stakes example of a split-second decision, but you can think about all the things you see each day that you’re automatically shunting into one category or another (with all the baggage those categories come with). Maybe a hot dog is a sandwich, and maybe it isn’t. We can only be sure that the question exposes the shaky foundation on which we’ve built our worldviews. Or, maybe it’s just a funny meme.

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