Linguistically Speaking…

Design by Kris Qiu

What if I told you that the word “sandwich” was born out of the dark underbelly of 18th-century gossip and gambling? 

In 1770, French travel writer Pierre-Jean Grosley published Londres, a novel about his experiential explorations of English life. The book was translated to English in 1772 with the oh-so-laconic title: A Tour to London; or, New Observations on England, and its Inhabitants. It quickly became a hit. 

A French intellectual, former magistrate, and fiercely stubborn baguette-lover, Grosley frowned upon the English. His descriptions of London were, at best, tart and, more plainly, rude. With an unquenchable thirst to reveal the debauchery and delinquency in elitist English social circles, Grosley decided to #expose the fourth Earl of Sandwich, also known as John Montagu. 

In his novel, Grosley wrote of a minister who sat on his ass for 24 hours straight at a public poker table. The minister was so engrossed in the game that he refused to get up, even for a meal. His only sustenance was a piece of sliced beef flattened between two pieces of toast––and he realized it was lowkey yummy. The dish “grew highly in vogue” during Grosley’s year in London and “was called by the name of the minister who invented it.” 

This little cup of tea spilled by Monsieur Grosley had everyone associating the Earl of Sandwich with delicious bread and beef noms, as well as a crippling gambling addiction. Interestingly though, the first written use of “sandwich” actually dates back to 1762, three years before Grosley went to London. 

Deep in his self-care phase, English historian and former First Lord of the Admiralty, Edward Gibbon was writing daily diary entries. On November 24, 1762, he described how he and his fellow Lords epitomized the pinnacle of English culture as they gathered in “point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich.” 

Rumor has it that Gibbon picked up the word “sandwich” from John Montagu while flouncing around high society groups in London. However, the word did not enter the mainstream until it appeared in Grosley’s novel years later. 

Now, why should you care about how Grosley, Montagu, and Gibbon’s snobbery birthed the beautiful nomenclature for meat (or not meat! No hate to the vegans!) between bread? Not only is it an engrossing story you can use to impress your next date, but it is also a story that can create a framework for how you interact with language. 

So, next time you bite into that Italian Combo or Bubbi’s egg salad sammy, know that “sandwich” isn’t simply an onslaught of letters. It is a small vessel of history that encapsulates international resentments, a ravenous desire for cultural prestige, and the historical prevalence of choosing convenience over luxury when you are hours deep in a heated game of poker.

Leave a Reply