Seven Theories You Might Not Know About Where the Word “Hoagie” Comes From

Its origins may be shrouded in the mists of time, but — who cares? It’s National Hoagie Day!

We were really hoping we’d be able to trace a Native American origin for the word “hoagie” in celebration of National Hoagie Day today, but we couldn’t. We did, however, find these seven variations, some way more dubious-sounding than others. Get yourself a nice fresh hoagie (or, depending on your place of birth, a submarine, a torpedo, a zeppelin, an Italian, a hero, a grinder, a po’boy, a wedge, a spuckie, a garibaldi, a blimpie … ) and settle in to survey these suggestions. (Note: There is no National Spuckie Day.) 

  1. The Hog Island Induction. During World War I, the U.S. government contracted with the American International Shipbuilding company to construct warships on Hog Island — named for the hogs that European settlers let run wild there after purchasing the land from the Lenape — on the Delaware River, where the airport now stands. (The first ship off the line was the U.S.S. Quistconck, named for the Lenape word for the site. Now, wouldn’t that be a great name for a sandwich?) The ships built there were known as “Hog Islanders.” According to Dominic Vitiello, an urban studies professor at Penn, Italian immigrants working at the company after World War II also became known as “Hog Islanders,” and the massive sandwiches they constructed of lunch meat and cheese inside Italian rolls took the name as well. This was eventually corrupted to “hoggies” and then transformed into “hoagies” thanks to the wonders of the Philadelphia accent.
  2. The Hogan Hypothesis. See the above, but substitute an Irish immigrant shipbuilder named Hogan who coveted his Italian co-worker’s hearty sandwich and begged him to have his wife make him one, too. His moniker got transferred to the sandwich and then diminutized, forever to endure.
  3. The Hokie Proposition. This unlikely candidate relies on anecdotal evidence that Italians in South Philly once used the term “on the hoke” the way we now use “on the dole,” to describe the impoverished. Sandwiches made by kindly shopkeepers from scraps of meat and cheese and distributed free to the needy thus became “hokies,” which transmogrified to “hoagies.”
  4. The Gilbert and Sullivan Conjecture. We don’t make ’em up, folks; we just report ’em. Food historian William Woys Weaver is the promulgator of a theory holding that the sandwich dates all the way back to the 1880s, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore debuted in Philly. Local bakeries marked the occasion by producing a long, thin roll they called a “pinafore.” Sandwiches made on the rolls were sold by street-cart vendors known as “hokey-pokey men.” Thus was born the “hokey,” which gradually was worn down by lazy Philly mouths into the easier-to-say “hoagie.”
  5. The DePalma Postulate. Imagine, if you will, the depths of the Great Depression in South Philadelphia. An unemployed musician named Al DePalma goes to the shipyards to look for work, and observes employees chomping happily away at meat-and-cheese sandwiches on lovely fresh rolls. “These guys look like hogs,” DePalma tells himself. Instead of applying for work, he opens his own lunch stand, re-creating the hefty sandwiches and calling them “hoggies.” He eventually opens a real, full-scale restaurant at 20th and Mifflin and turns the back room into an assembly line for his sandwiches, earning the nickname “King of the Hoggies.” And then that “a” somehow creeps in.
  6. The Holmesburg Hobo Corollary. This one was promulgated by local historian Jim Smart, who once wrote a column for the Inquirer. He claimed that “hoagie” was a corruption of “hobo,” used for a sandwich invented on Ditman Street in the Holmesburg section of the city.
  7. The DiCostanza Criterion. We’re naturally suspicious of self-serving origin myths, but we’re duty-bound to bring you everything we got, just like the hoagie does. In 1925, the DiCostanza family opened a grocery store in — gasp — Chester, which catered to the late-night habitués of a den of iniquity (some say it was a bar; some say it was a pool hall) known as Palermo’s. On one auspicious evening, a customer entered the store just as Mrs. DiCostanza was frying up some peppers. Enticed by the aroma, the customer implored her to make him a meat-and-cheese sandwich and throw some peppers on. She did, and the rest is … well, history according to the DiCostanza clan, and just one more birth theory, albeit a robust one, to everybody else. Also, it explains the sandwich, but what about the name? Eh, we’ll chew on that while we chew on our hoagie. Happy National Hoagie Day!

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Previously: How Wawa Is Spreading the Gospel of Hoagies