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How noble is the sandwich?

Q: Did the Earl of Sandwich really give us the sandwich? Or is this just one of the many folk etymologies to be found on the Internet?

A: John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, didn’t give us the sandwich, but the 18th-century nobleman—or rather his table manners—may have given us the name for it.

The word “sandwich,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is said to be named after the Earl, “who once spent twenty-four hours at the gaming-table without other refreshment than some slices of cold beef placed between slices of toast.”

“The basic idea was nothing new, of course,” explains John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “but the Earl’s patronage ensured it a vogue, and by the early 1760s we have the first evidence of his name being attached to it.”

It’s not exactly clear when the Earl (who lived from 1718 to 1792) is supposed to have gone on this round-the-clock binge of gambling and sandwiching.

The first mention of it in writing, according to the OED, is in Londres (1770), a book by the French travel writer Pierre-Jean Grosley about a visit to London in 1765.

Here’s an excerpt from A Tour of London (1772), Thomas Nugent’s English translation of Grosley’s book:

“A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London; it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”

Although Grosley doesn’t mention him by name, Lord Sandwich was the First Lord of the Admiralty and a Secretary of State in 1765.

If that gambling incident did indeed take place and inspired the fast-food use of the word “sandwich,” it occurred before Grosley’s trip to London.

The earliest OED citation for the term “sandwich” used in the culinary sense is from a Nov. 14, 1762, entry in the journal of the historian Edward Gibbon, who describes the membership of the Cocoa Tree Club:

“That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, 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, a drinking a glass of punch.”

(We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

So if Lord Sandwich didn’t invent the sandwich, you’re probably wondering, who did invent it?

Well, Larousse Gastronomique, the encyclopedia of gastronomy, says farm laborers in rural France had been eating meat between slices of bread long before the word “sandwich” showed up in London.

But Larousse doesn’t name names. And it’s probably impossible to say who’s responsible for the first sandwich.

If we had to pick a name, though, it might be Hillel the Elder, a Jewish sage who lived in Jerusalem at the time of King Herod.

Hillel, according to Jewish tradition, wrapped lamb and bitter herbs inside unleavened bread to create a sandwich eaten during Passover.

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