Multilinguish Bonus Episode: Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich?

In this bonus episode, we explain why “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” is one of the most insightful questions of our time. Or not, up to you.
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Multilinguish Bonus Episode: Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich?

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Listen to “BONUS: Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich?” on Spreaker.

Is a hot dog a sandwich? This question is, frankly, very silly. It’s the kind of debate you get into with your friends when you’re bored. But what starts as light-hearted can be revealing. Your knee-jerk reaction to the question might buckle under examination. What is a sandwich, anyway? Is it anything between two slices of bread? Do the ingredients matter?

On this episode of Multilinguish, we asked four of our fellow Babbel employees their thoughts on the matter and tried to nail down exactly what a hot dog is. But, this being a linguistics podcast, we explored the question even deeper than that by bringing in two other memes that fit into this same kind of category of question: the Dress and Yanny-Laurel. Yes, asking “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” isn’t the most serious inquiry, but it might reveal more about the human psyche than you think.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by Thomas Devlin and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao.

Season 2 of Multilinguish is coming this fall! Be sure to subscribe wherever you get podcasts.

Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich? And Other Important Language Question | Babbel Magazine
Yanny Or Laurel? How A Sound Clip Divided America |The New York Times
Here’s Why People Saw “The Dress” Differently | Slate Magazine
Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich? | The Takeout
Is A Hot Dog A Sandwich? | Know Your Meme


 Episode Transcript

Thomas: From Babbel, this is a bonus episode of Multilinguish, a show about language and how it connects us. I’m Thomas Devlin. Is a hot dog a sandwich? The question may sound silly, but behind this meme is an interesting argument. Why do some people define things the way they do? What makes one thing a sandwich and another thing not? In this bonus episode, I talk to my colleague David Doochin about hot dogs, the dress, Yanny/Laurel, and why these memes teach us that our senses are not nearly as reliable as we think they are. But first, I asked a few of my other coworkers what their take on the hot dog question is.

Alex: My name’s Alex, and I’m an email marketing manager.

Ally: Hi, my name is Ally, and I’m a designer at Babbel.

Steph: I’m Steph, and I’m a senior content producer here at Babbel.

Ruben: Hi, my name is Ruben, and I’m head of video production here at Babbel, and I am from Portugal.

Thomas: Is a hot dog a sandwich?

Alex: I don’t believe a hot dog is a sandwich.

Thomas: So, how do you define sandwich?

Alex: I define sandwich as sliced bread with any assortment of ingredients in between that sliced bread. Because, if the hot dog was a sandwich, it’d be marketed as a sandwich.

Thomas: So it’s the marketing that really.

Alex: Yeah, it’s a different genre.

Thomas: Okay.

Alex: Yeah.

Thomas: How are you defining a sandwich?

Ally: I think a sandwich is anything that is two slices of bread, or more, if you consider a club sandwich, for example. Two or more slices of bread. They can either be separate or connected, with some kind of filling. Because if you consider a hoagie bread — we call them hoagies in Philadelphia, but I know other people call them subs — if you consider a hoagie bread, or any kind of roll situation, that bread is usually connected, so by that same logic, a hot dog is a sandwich because the hot dog bun is two slices of bread, not dissimilar to hoagie bread, connected with a filling in it. If the filling of the sandwich structure is inside an enclosed piece of bread or dough situation, then it is then a calzone or dumpling. But that’s a whole other conversation. We don’t have to get into that.

Thomas: That’ll be the next episode.

Steph: I don’t know. I’ll be honest. I don’t have a strong opinion either way.

Thomas: Do you have a definition of sandwich in your head?

Steph: Here’s where my line of thinking goes. By definition, a sandwich is a palatable … Well, it doesn’t have to be palatable. It’s a food item that you put between two pieces of bread. Or, I guess it just has to be enveloped on at least three sides by some sort of bread product.

Thomas: Interesting.

Steph: The word sandwich itself has a meaning apart from food, right, so we think of to sandwich something means to put it in between something.

Thomas: Interesting.

Steph: So I think that is kind of the key, that it’s in between.

Thomas: That’s a good point. I didn’t really think about.

Ruben: That’s a good question. I would say, no.

Thomas: Interesting. Have you had a lot of hot dogs?

Ruben: I did not have a lot of hot dogs. I do have a lot of homemade hot dogs, but I never had a New York hot dog, for example.

Thomas: You’ve just never been out in the street and then like, “I know what I want.”

Ruben: No, I mean, I’ve seen them, and I’m like, “Yeah, I really want to try a street hot dog,” but every time I see one, I don’t want one anymore. I do love street foods, but in this case, I don’t know. I just look at them, and I’m like, “No. I don’t think so.” I would define a sandwich as something that has bread on top and on the bottom, and not on the sides, like a hot dog.

Thomas: Okay, so you can’t turn the hot dog and make it into a sandwich?

Ruben: No, because the roof is open. The hot dog does not have a roof.

Thomas: Anyway, hi, David.

David: Hey, Thomas. It’s good to be here.

Thomas: Well, let’s start by asking you. Do you think a hot dog is a sandwich?

David: No, I think this is a pretty cut-and-dried answer.

Thomas: Really?

David: Even without reading any of the background material that you compiled in your amazing article, I think just right off the bat, it’s super easy to tell that a hot dog is not a sandwich. It’s because of the bun, and the fact that the bun is not cut down the middle. It’s like on a pivot around a hinge, and no other sandwich I think by definition has two slices of bread that are connected by a hinge. But it’s also I think having to do with the shape of the contents of the sandwich itself. The fact that it’s a tube of meat means, I don’t know—

Thomas: What a horrendous way to describe a hot dog.

David: Your words, not mine. I’m not ripping on the tubes of meat at all, but I think that when I think of a sandwich, for me, it’s all about flat meat, like, sheets of meat, paper thin. I’m thinking deli meat, like deli cut ham, turkey. That’s not to say, I mean, you can have like a tuna salad sandwich in more globular form, but I think there’s something about the nature of a long cylinder inside a bun that is connected to itself that just screams “not a sandwich” to me. I feel pretty passionately about this, too. I don’t even know why this is an issue that people talk about.

Thomas: It’s interesting that it’s captured the zeitgeist as it has. It has, for those listening who are like, “Why are they talking about this random question?” It’s like, a meme.

David: It is a meme, no, I’ll give you that. I think that it’s just blown out of proportion.

Thomas: I’m going to jump in with some background on this particular meme. I’d say like 2018, it really jumped. That’s when I first started hearing about it, but the question first appeared, according to Know Your Meme, the most reliable source on meme history, in March 6, 2011, there was an online poll by a food blog called Panini Happy. It asked a bunch of different questions, mainly just like, “Is this food a sandwich?” They found things like, most people would say a hamburger is a sandwich which, that can also be debatable, but crepes are not sandwich. But for some reason, hot dog was just the one that was the most divided. It was like 50/50 people saying yes or no, and then it just kind of birthed this whole debate about it. Who really knows how it jumped up, but it’s been debated by a number of different people. I know The Takeout, which is a blog related to the A.V. Club, has a kind of ongoing segment where they ask celebrities if they think a hot dog is a sandwich, and they’re still doing it, so it must be some popularity there. Most people say no, so they’re on your side, David.

David: Well, that makes me feel really good, because I think that it, like I said, there’s not a lot of evidence that would tip me to the other side of the scale. You mentioned hamburgers. You said most people think a hamburger is a sandwich?

Thomas: Yes.

David: For me, that would be the 50/50 point.

Thomas: Really?

David: I think a hamburger, by nature of having its own name, its own label as a hamburger, is inherently something distinct from a sandwich, but I’m more willing to budge and be flexible on that position that I am about the hot dog.

Thomas: Interesting.

David: And I think most people would agree with me. Maybe the degree to which people agree that a hot dog is not a sandwich is variable, but I think that fewer people would call a hot dog a sandwich than would call a hamburger a sandwich, overall. So I think most people will fall in line with my positioning on that.

Thomas: The meme is funny. Hot dogs are funny. They’re a funny food.

David: If you say so, yeah.

Thomas: Do you not think so?

David: I mean, just because you say it doesn’t make it true. Hot dogs objectively are funny because they’re tubes of meat, the makeup of which we don’t really know.

Thomas: Yeah. Who knows.

David: Yeah, okay. No, actually, I’ll give it to you. Hot dogs are pretty funny.

Thomas: I’m glad we’re in agreement on that one question. But I think there is a deeper reason that this has caught on, and I’m going to call it memes of ambiguity. There’s two other memes that I think fall into this camp, at least that have gotten really popular. They’re all in this kind of ambiguous spot, and they interest people because they don’t make sense because they have this weird gray area that we wouldn’t expect to exist. The first one that I wanted to talk about is the dress. You remember the dress?

David: Of course.

Thomas: It took over everywhere. I remember, I woke up from a nap, and I looked on Facebook, and it was just every single post on there. But the dress, it refers to this Tumblr post that was posted where this person had a dress. It was two colors, either blue and black, or white and gold. Personally, I’ve always seen it blue and black. I don’t know about you.

David: I don’t even remember at this point, is the thing.

Thomas: Really?

David: I think it was a matter of, if I was willing to see it as blue and black, then I did, and if I was willing to see it as white and gold, then I did that, too. It doesn’t seem fair to just completely rule out one possibility of how the universe works or how it could be. This is getting into some metaphysical—

Thomas: Yes, it is.

David: … existential depth, but I think it speaks to the hot dog question. I mean, a hot dog is a sandwich if you choose to see it as a sandwich, but it all depends on your experience with sandwiches. I mean, this gets back to linguistics, too, which I think we’ll end up tying this discussion to. Everyone’s definition of a sandwich is different because everyone’s experience with real-world entities that have been labeled sandwiches before are different. Like, if my parents raised me, and every time they gave me a hot dog in a bun, they said, “Here, son. Here is your sandwich. Go enjoy this delicacy,” then I would think, “Oh, of course it’s a sandwich.” But if I had never once heard of even … I’ve even heard of a sandwich before, and let’s say my parents had raised me giving me actual sandwiches, like two pieces of rye bread with some chicken salad between, and they said, “This, son, is a oogly boogly,” and I would be like, “Okay, yeah. This is what an oogly boogly is. I’ve never heard of the sandwich. What are you talking about, Thomas? What is a sandwich? Of course a hot dog isn’t a sandwich, because I don’t know what that is.”

Thomas: Then you get to college, and people are like, “What are you saying?”

David: And I ordered oogly boogly in the cafeteria or the dining hall, and then I get shamed.

Thomas: It’s happened to all of us.

David: Of course.

Thomas: In different ways.

David: Yeah, it’s a rite of passage.

Thomas: I’m going to show you the dress, and you’re going to say as quickly as possible what it looks like to you.

David: Okay. White and gold. Yeah.

Thomas: Really?

David: Yeah.

Thomas: I cannot see this as anything but blue and black. The lesson that you can kind of take away from it is this like, your eyes are not necessarily as trustworthy as you would think. Anyway, the next meme of ambiguity is Yanny/Laurel, which to me, I found even weirder. This one, for the brief background, is it came up on Reddit on, I’m not going to say the name of the Reddit group, because it’s got a swear word in it.

David: Wait, what’s the name of the Reddit group?

Thomas: It’s black magic effery. But it’s not effery, it’s—

David: Right.

Thomas: I don’t—

David: I get what you’re—

Thomas: But it’s like—

David: It’s a subreddit?

Thomas: Yeah.

David: Hm. I’ve never heard of this subreddit before.

Thomas: I guess it’s just kind of a thing where it’s like, “Wow, this is weird,” because they had already realized that it was weird. It’s an enunciation recording, so if you go to a dictionary, this one’s from vocabulary.com, and it’s just like, they have a little thing, and you can push it, and it will give you the pronunciation of a word. One time, someone looked up the word “laurel.”

David: I’m imagining the situation of the first person to find out about the Laurel/Yanny dichotomy. Okay, so maybe you know more about the story. I want to hear the rest of the story before I comment on it.

Thomas: I mean, it’s pretty much just the person looked up the word laurel because they were studying for vocab, and then they heard it.

Recording: [Laurel-Yanny Recording]

Thomas: And they were like, “This isn’t the word laurel. It’s saying Yanny.”

David: Yeah, and the thing that I think is most compelling about stories like these, and yeah, this is about the dress, too, and it can even be applied to the hot dog question, is like, if you were so convinced that you hear laurel or you hear Yanny, and other people are telling you, “No, I swear, I’m certain that I hear Laurel. Even though you hear Yanny, it’s saying Laurel. It’s saying Laurel,” I mean, you almost feel like those people are playing a prank on you, right? Like, they’re a part of some conspiracy where there’s no possible way that they could be hearing Laurel because your own ears wouldn’t deceive you, right, because you’ve trusted them for so long, they’ve never let you down and betrayed you in this way, and yet, half the world’s population is telling you that what you’re hearing is wrong. But also, half the world’s population is agreeing with you, so it’s kind of like, who is right?

David: Are all of these people deluded, are they all crazy, are they all hallucinating, or is there truly a glitch in the matrix? Am I the one who’s being punked, or am I complicit in punking half of the world’s population who truly doesn’t know that they’re not hearing the right thing? It’s just a crazy thing to think about, because the people of the world are naturally sorted into two categories, kind of arbitrarily, but like, how did you end up in this one category, and how did they end up in that one?

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, personally, if this did not exist in the age of the internet, where after like 24 hours, there are already a bunch of explainers, and it’s like, “Oh, depending on which frequencies you hear, it’s that if you pick up on the lower frequencies, you’ll hear Laurel, if you pick up on the higher frequencies, it’s Yanny. Also, there is stuff about how words in isolation are harder for your brain to understand because your brain is more adept at figuring out stuff based on surrounding context clues,” so there are all these explainers, but just imagine no internet, you just hear that, and you’re fighting with your family.

David: So, let’s find a way to tie this back to hot dogs, maybe?

Thomas: Yeah.

David: Or more memes of ambiguity.

Thomas: I would say that in this trilogy, the hot dog one is a less obvious meme of ambiguity because it’s another time where, at least according to this one poll, you’re on one side very strongly. People just don’t know which category to put hot dogs in. I think I like is a hot dog a sandwich because it is kind of silly. I mean, if we have the dress tells you to not trust eyes, if Yanny/Laurel tells you you should not trust ears, I think hot-dog-sandwich kind of tells you not trust the way that you categorize things. This is a linguistics podcast, so that is tied in here, because the way that we label things and give things names kind of creates the universe that we have. Categorizing, it’s a big topic in cognitive science, figuring out how does someone decide when one thing is one thing, and another thing is another. You’re brought up with your parents telling you that this thing is an, what was it, oogle?

David: Oogly boogly.

Thomas: Oogly boogly. Like, that just kind of shapes your worldview. And it is true, I think this question would be much more clear-cut if there was just, like, every time you went to a sandwich shop, they had hot dogs. You probably wouldn’t question it nearly as much.

David: I think this gets exactly, or it touches very well, maybe not exactly, on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is an entire topic of an episode that we did last season, about how much, or to what extent language shapes thought, or on the flip side, how much thought shapes language, but it’s all about how much the words you have for certain concepts in the universe around you affects the way that you perceive the universe around you. I mean, one of the most often-cited examples is the Russian words for colors, and how Russians have a term for dark blue and light blue, and so the claim is that they’re better able to distinguish between two shades of blue than a speaker of English would be, for example. Regardless of how baseless that claim is, or how much evidence supports it, people have argued for both sides for decades now, but the idea is that if you have more words to categorize the concepts that you interact with daily, like colors, then for you, of course, it makes sense that a light blue and a dark blue would be different if you are regularly referring to them as different concepts or different entities.

David: So, if you are always presented with a hot dog, which is a tube of meat in a bun, as a hot dog, and you’re always presented with a sandwich, which is anything but that, that is less hot-doggy, as a sandwich, then it makes sense that you would say the hot dog is not a sandwich. It also would affect the way that you interact with the world, too. A stupid, but maybe relevant example I thought of when you were talking was like, if you were having a picnic, and your friends say, “I’m going to bring the fruit, you bring the sandwiches,” if you think a hot dog is a sandwich, maybe you’d bring a hot dog to the picnic, and then you’d be eating hot dogs at the picnic. But if you—

Thomas: Honestly, that’s the most convincing example that if I ask someone to bring sandwiches to a picnic, and they brought hot dogs, I’d be like, “No. That’s wrong.”

David: Yeah, so I think you and I both agree here that that, in that case, a hot dog’s not a sandwich.

Thomas: Mm-hmm.

David: But that’s a clear example of your language affecting the actual interactions you have with the universe in the way that like, if someone tells me to bring sandwiches, if I truly believe that a hot dog is a sandwich, I’m going to bring a hot dog and not think twice about it. It’s also about how people spin certain issues in the news depending on what you call a crisis, or if you talk about immigration as a humanitarian crisis, then you might elicit more sympathy from people than if you call it like, an illegal invasion. You know?

Thomas: Yeah.

David: It’s all about the words that you use to frame certain concepts, but I might classify crossing the border as something else completely different from what someone else might classify it as.

Thomas: I think that’s where this question comes in. I mean, obviously, a hot dog sandwich is not going to solve the disagreements, but I think using it as soon as a way to just understand like, if you’re having a conversation with someone, and they’re not categorizing things the same, you can think that you’re agreeing and not be agreeing. It’s just very hard to argue with someone if they think something is different than what you think it is.

David: Especially if you don’t even know how to backtrack enough to establish common ground, or where the miscommunication is. Yeah. I mean, that’s why ideally, our society would kind of funnel us into all thinking that this concept refers to this word. How about I ask you a question. Are Gushers ravioli?

Thomas: Oh, my god. No.

David: Is a Pop-Tart ravioli?

Thomas: No.

David: Okay. Is a lasagna a cake? Or is a cake a lasagna?

Thomas: Oh, god. No. It’s not a dessert. Thank you so much for coming today and talking about hot dogs.

David: You know I love to talk about cylinders of processed meat.

Thomas: Oh, my god.

David: It’s something I try to do religiously, so this was just another day in the life for me.

Thomas: Thank you. This bonus episode of Multilinguish is produced by me, Thomas Devlin. Our executive producer is Jen Jordan, and this episode was edited by Ruben Vilas. Season two is coming this fall. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Multilinguish is a production of the language app Babbel. Learn more at B-A-B-B-E-L.com/magazine.

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