A Hoagie By Any Other Name
(This article originally appeared in Verbatim magazine, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn 2003, and is reprinted with permission.)
I wanna shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I wanna explore the world. I wanna watch TV in a different time zone. I wanna visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live? Won’t you, please?
—Homer Simpson, “Fear of Flying,” The Simpsons, 20th Century Fox Television, 1994.
One of the amusements offered by my frequent travels to Europe is seeing The Simpsons translated into different languages. Homer speaking French or German is something to behold. But sometimes I wonder if all of the humor translates along with the words. The above-quoted passage is one of the best jokes ever seen on that show, or at least to my inner-linguist it is. But even in Britain, where they don’t bother to dub the original American voices, probably only a few get the joke.
You see a hoagie, a grinder, a sub, and a hero are one and the same thing. They are simply regional names for a sandwich served on a large Italian roll and filled with Italian meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and sprinkled with olive oil and spices. Variations on the basic recipe are made by filling the sandwich with other things, such as tuna fish, roast beef, ham and cheese, meatballs, and all manner of other ingredients. Subs can be served either hot or cold. All the exotic things that Homer associates with travel are simply roses by another name.
And Homer is just scratching the surface of lexical diversity of the sandwich. In addition to the names he cites there are: poor boy, torpedo, Italian sandwich, rocket, zeppelin or zep, blimpie, garibaldi, bomber, wedge, muffuletta, Cuban sandwich, and spuckie. Most of these names are associated with a particular region of the United States. The names also fall into several distinct patterns of origin, from the shape (sub, torpedo, rocket, zeppelin, blimpie, and bomber), from the size (hero, hoagie), from ethnic association (Italian sandwich, Cuban sandwich), from the type of bread used (muffuletta, spuckie), or from the fact that the sandwich is a cheap meal (poor boy).
Where I grew up, the town of Toms River on the New Jersey Shore, we knew the sandwich as a sub, short for submarine sandwich, so called because the long, tubular shape resembles the submersible vessel. Sub is the general name for the sandwich, found throughout the United States and not associated with any particular region. The name dates to 1941, although there is at least one claim (made in 1967) that the word existed as early as 1928.
It is often asserted that the name submarine sandwich began in New London, Connecticut, after the naval submarine base there, but there is no evidence to support this contention. Sub, the sandwich, is not associated with Connecticut in particular. (Although the Subway® chain of sandwich shops got its start in 1965 as Pete’s Super Submarine Shop in Bridgeport, about 70 miles from New London.) And if the 1928 claim were true, it would seem unlikely, as that citation is from Philadelphia.
Related to the name sub, is torpedo. Like sub, this term is found throughout the US. It is often used to refer to a small or half-sized sub, a torpedo roll being a smaller piece of bread than that used in a full-sized sub.
I learned my first exotic name for the sandwich, hoagie, during my earliest school days. We had subs at home. We ate subs at local restaurants (or sub-shops). But for some reason the school cafeteria served hoagies. That’s the name given to the sandwich in Philadelphia (also known for that other famous sandwich, the Philly Cheesesteak, which can be considered a variant on the basic sub theme). Hoagie permeated outward from Philadelphia, attenuating in use as it traveled, until by the time it reached Toms River it was known only in the school cafeterias. (Whoever wrote the cafeteria menus for the Toms River school system was probably from Philadelphia.) Hoagie is common throughout Pennsylvania and much of southern New Jersey.
My portion of the Jersey Shore lacked a strong Philly influence. Even today the main road from Toms River to Philadelphia, Route 70, is a two-lane, country highway for much of its length. As a boy, I rooted for the Mets, not the Phillies, even though Veteran’s Stadium was much closer, as the crow flies, than Shea. Our beaches were filled with visitors from Bergen County and New York, who came down the Garden State Parkway. Philadelphians went to beaches further south: Long Beach Island, Wildwood, and Ocean City. Hence, hoagie was something of foreign term to the Jersey Shore of my childhood.
Linguists Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy (“The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context,” American Speech, Dec 1967) point to uses of both hoagie and hoggy in a 1945 Philadelphia telephone directory. Indefatigable word sleuth Barry Popik has done thorough and meticulous research into early citations and origins of American culinary terms. He has found hoggie in an October 1944 Philadelphia phone directory, hogie from September 1943, and hoogie from January 1941.
How it got its name is an often-debated topic. The most commonly touted explanation is that it comes from the name of Hog Island, Philadelphia. In the early part of the 20th century there was a shipyard on Hog Island (now the site of the Philadelphia airport). According to this tale, during the First World War, Italian-American shipyard workers, or hoggies as they are known in the legend, would bring large sandwiches to work with them. The early spelling of hoggie makes this hypothesis attractive, but there is a gap between the shipyard’s years of operation and the earliest attestation of the sandwich name in 1941. The shipyard operated full-bore from 1917-20, after which production rapidly declined before it closed completely in 1925. That leaves only a handful of years for the name to catch on in the city’s consciousness and a gap of some fifteen years before the name is found in print. If the name can be antedated further, the Hog Island hypothesis will seem more likely, but for now this explanation seems doubtful.
A variant on the above is that it comes from Hogan, a nickname for Irish workers at the shipyard. This has the same problem of dating, plus it seems unlikely that an Irish name would be associated with the Italian sandwich.
A second and more likely explanation is that an enterprising restaurateur coined it. Al De Palma, the self-proclaimed “King of the Hoagies,” claims to have coined hoggie. In 1928 while working as a jazz musician, De Palma saw some fellow musicians eating a submarine. Impressed with the size of the sandwich, De Palma remarked that, “you had to be hog to eat one.” When the depression hit, De Palma couldn’t find work as a musician and in 1936 opened up a sandwich shop in Philadelphia. Recalling the sandwich and his remark from eight years before, he made and sold hoggies in the shop. He was quite successful, eventually opening a chain of hoagie shops and earning himself his sobriquet.
De Palma’s claim and story is consistent with the date of the name’s appearance. He opened his sandwich shop in 1936 and the term (hoogie) appears in advertising copy by 1941.
Eames and Robboy include De Palma’s account as a footnote in their 1967 American Speech article. They do not, however, give his name. But various other accounts of the tale do and from these one can determine who the “King of the Hoagies” was. These other accounts often confuse various details of the story, however. The WaWa (a Philadelphia-area chain of convenience stores) website, for example, places the 1928 incident among Italian shipyard workers on Hog Island instead of among jazz musicians—a chronological impossibility. But the account in Eames and Robboy’s article is in De Palma’s own words and is presumably more reliable. De Palma’s account is also interesting because he claims the sandwich was called a submarine as far back as 1928. The earliest known written citation of that term is from 1950. Of course, he is recalling the incident some forty years after the fact and his memory could be faulty.
Other suggestions as to the origin of hoagie include hoke sandwich, supposedly favored by hoboes who were on the hoke. This explanation is originally touted in a 1953 article in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The sense of on the hoke is not explained beyond having reference to unemployed hoboes. I haven’t found the phrase anywhere else, nor have I found another usage of hoke that is related to either hoboes or unemployment. If the phrase ever existed, it was probably not widespread and as an inspiration for the sandwich’s name it seems unlikely. Other explanations are a reference to the pork or hog meat in the sandwich; honky sandwich, called that by blacks who saw whites eating them; and hookey sandwich, favored by kids skipping school who would buy them from sidewalk vendors. None of these seem very likely either.
To a New Yorker like you, a hero is some sort of weird sandwich, not some nut that takes on three Tigers.
—Oddball (Donald Sutherland), Kelly’s Heroes, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1970
Another name for the sandwich that I identified in childhood was hero. Toms River is on the outskirts of New York City’s cultural sphere of influence. Like hoagie, the word hero penetrated into the local vocabulary just far enough to become familiar.
Hero is attested to as early as the 19 February 1947 issue of The New York Naval Shipyard Shipworker and is distinctly a New York name for the sandwich. The most common etymological explanation is that it is so called because of its large size. It is often claimed that New York Herald Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleford coined the name in the 1930s, claiming the sandwich was so large “you had to be a hero to eat it.” Alas, no one can find any record of this in any of Paddleford’s columns, or any use of the term before 1947. But it does seem likely that the name comes from the size of the sandwich.
An alternative explanation is that it is a folk etymology of gyros (pronounced yee-roh; phonetics experts and those fluent in Greek may feel free to pick at my representation of the proper pronunciation). Non-Greek New Yorkers took the unfamiliar word and made it into the familiar hero. This is a plausible explanation from a phonological standpoint, but not from a cultural one. The hero is a distinctly Italian sandwich, not a Greek one. And there is no way that someone could mistake cold cuts on an Italian roll for a gyros, which is lamb and tzatziki sauce in a pita. Besides, gyros isn’t attested to in English until 1968 and appears to be a later addition to the American bill of fare. It certainly was a later addition to mine. I never saw a gyros until the Army sent me to Germany in 1986. (Toms River had many restaurants owned by Greek-Americans, but none that served Greek cuisine.) Due to the large number of Turkish Gastarbeitern in Germany, we knew them by the Turkish name, döner kebab, anglicized by us G.I.s into donburger.
New York State, as opposed to the city, offers some other regional variants. Around Buffalo, subs are sometimes known as bombers. The name bomber is not limited to Buffalo, however, and is found scattered throughout the US. The term in Westchester County and the Hudson Valley is wedge.
I can recall one other name for the sandwich from my early childhood, blimpie®. The eponymous chain of sub shops served blimpies. Other establishments served subs; Blimpie served blimpies. The chain was founded in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1964 and one of the early franchises was in Toms River. After early childhood, the term disappeared from my vocabulary. The local Blimpie shop closed and I have rarely seen one since—although the chain is still in existence and second only to Subway in number of franchises. According to the chain’s website, the name was chosen by the chain’s founders, a combination of blimp, from the shape of the sandwich, and the –ie ending from hoagie.
Blimpie is etymologically unrelated to zeppelin or zep (1960), another name for the sandwich, common in eastern Pennsylvania. With Lakehurst Naval Air Station, site of the Hindenburg crash and home of the Navy’s lighter-than-air aviation program, right outside Toms River on Route 70, you would think that this name would have caught on in my hometown. But no, blimpie had to pull double duty in representing the area’s aviation history.
So my childhood was subs, with the occasional hoagie or hero or a trademarked blimpie. I was a little better off than Homer Simpson in that I knew a few of the terms. My first real linguistic shock happened on a church choir trip to New England, where in Rhode Island I encountered my first grinder.
Grinder is the term of art throughout most of New England, with the notable exception of Boston where it is less common. The name probably comes from the chewing or grinding your teeth do when consuming the sandwich and dates to at least 1946. Many people make a distinction between grinders and other subs in that they use grinder to mean a hot sub, but this is not the original sense. The original grinders were the familiar cold-cut subs we know and love. Hot sandwiches are often known as oven grinders. And you occasionally see the alliterative guinea grinder that associates the sandwich with its Italian-American heritage, however derogatorily.
Boston has its own local name for the sandwich, spuckie (also spukie, spooky, and spucky). The name comes from spucadella, a type of Italian sandwich roll. This local Hub name appears to be dying, being replaced by the generic sub.
After being surprised by grinder, I was better prepared when I encountered my next lexical variation on the sandwich. I joined the army in 1985 and they sent me to Fort McClellan, Alabama for my officer’s basic course. I quickly discovered that the stuff they served at breakfast that looked like Cream of Wheat wasn’t and the green vegetables that looked like spinach weren’t. Upsetting as grits and collard greens were to my Yankee notions of proper food, I did delight in the discovery of hushpuppies. But while these foods were strange and new to me, I also discovered a new name for a familiar sandwich, the poor boy.
The poor boy got its start in New Orleans and spread out across the South from there. It is attested to as early as 1931. The name most likely comes from the fact that subs are cheap, but filling meals for “poor boys.” But like sub and hoagie, the origin of poor boy is somewhat uncertain.
The best-substantiated claim for the coinage of poor boy is that of Clovis and Benjamin Martin, brothers who opened a sandwich shop on the New Orleans waterfront in 1921. They claim to have invented the sandwich and its name, which were quickly copied by their competitors. Their justification for the name is that it is a hearty sandwich for the workingman who doesn’t make much money.
In Puerto Rico there is a similar sandwich, known as the niño pobre. Whether the sandwich and its name emigrated from New Orleans or whether it came to that city from the Caribbean is not known. The same sandwich is available elsewhere in Latin America under the name obrero (laborer). The Martin brothers profess to have been unaware of these Spanish variants.
Being from New Orleans, some insist that the poor boy has a French origin. Two theories contend. One is that it is from pour le bois, a meal taken into the woods by lumberjacks. The second is that it is from pourbois, a tip or gratuity. Supposedly, street urchins would knock at convent doors seeking a pourbois, and the nuns would give them a sandwich.
There are two Southern variants of the poor boy that are not subs in the strictest sense. The first is another New Orleans creation, the muffuletta. The muffuletta takes its name from the bread, a Sicilian dialectical name. Unlike the long, tubular shape of a sub, the muffuletta is round. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the muffuletta was added to the menu of New Orleans cuisine in 1910, when the Central Grocery on Decatur Street started serving them.
The second Southern variation is the Cuban Sandwich. While it has the familiar tubular shape of a sub, it is Cuban rather than Italian in origin and, properly made, contains a different combination of meats and is flattened in a sandwich press. Found mainly in Miami and southern Florida (no surprise), the sandwich has been part of the local cuisine since 1901.
In a few places, subs are called rockets. In Madison, Wisconsin they have been known as garibaldis. And there are undoubtedly other local names for the venerable sandwich.
Why so much lexical diversity in a sandwich? Probably because no single person can lay claim to inventing it. Slicing an Italian roll and filling it with meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes hardly requires culinary expertise or inventiveness. It was undoubtedly created de novo many times across the United States and given a different name each time. Many of the more regional names appear to be going by the wayside as American culture becomes more and more homogenized, but hoagie, hero, grinder, and poor boy remain strong and so far are resisting being overtaken by sub, even as garibaldi, wedge, bomber, zeppelin, rocket, and spuckie fade from the American lexicon.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton