Why Is It Called a “Hamburger” If It Doesn’t Contain Ham?

It’s basically all a big linguistic coincidence.
It's a cheeseburger, we know.
It's a cheeseburger, we know. / (Burger) eli_asenova/E+/Getty Images; (Background) Boris Panov/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Question marks) designer29/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Since hamburgers are famously made from beef, the logical assumption is that their name harks back to some bygone era when they were made from ham. That’s actually not what happened at all—but ham and hamburgers do have a connection of a different sort.

From Steak to Sandwich

As far back as the early 1600s, Hamburger referred to any person from Hamburg, Germany. The city has a centuries-long history of championing fine beef, and, according to Andrew F. Smith’s book Hamburger: A Global History, Hamburg beef was “an expensive gourmet food” in the 19th century. 

a bridge over a canal with views of red brick buildings in the distance
The Brooks-Brucke Bridge over the canal in Hamburg. / Bruce Yuanyue Bi/The Image Bank/Getty Images

“One common way to prepare fresh Hamburg beef was to chop it, season it and form it into patties, but it would have to be used immediately,” Smith wrote. Since that wasn’t feasible for far-flung gourmands across Europe and in North America, they’d use non-Hamburg beef for these Hamburg-style beef patties. By the late 19th century, people had started calling them “Hamburg steaks” or “Hamburger steaks.”

It’s unclear who first slapped a Hamburger steak inside some bread to create the modern hamburger; a handful of American cooks have been credited with the innovation. What’s equally possible is that it wasn’t any one person: Hamburger steaks were often served with bread, so it seems natural that multiple people would have the bright idea to make a handheld meal from those elements. In any case, hamburgers of the sandwich variety gained popularity in the early 20th century, and eventually, hamburger—as a shortening of hamburger steak—came to refer to them.

Had the shortening ended there, people today might have an easier time remembering the connection between hamburgers and Hamburg—and be less inclined to wonder how ham fits into the picture. But, of course, the shortening didn’t end there.

Hold the Ham

At least as early as the 1930s, Americans had started calling hamburgers “burgers.” You can hardly fault them for that; hamburger is a misleading name for a food item whose main ingredient isn’t ham, but a completely different meat. Plus, this way, burger could become a customizable root word: Cheeseburger showed up in the written record around the same time, and vegeburger followed in the 1940s.

a man in an all-white cook's uniform flips burger patties on a griddle at a concession stand
A cook making burgers at the National Rice Festival in Crowley, Louisiana, 1938. / Historical/GettyImages

It’s pretty amusing that hamburgers got so firmly disassociated from the city that inspired them because people unwittingly broke the word into the wrong parts. Hamburger originated as Hamburg and the suffix -er, but then fractured into ham and burger.

Linguists have a name for this kind of misguided morpheme splitting: rebracketing. Helicopter is another example. The word came into English by way of the French hélicoptère, formed from the Greek helix (“spiral”) and pteron (“wing”). So helicopter should technically be split into helico- and -pter. Instead, we’ve rebracketed it as heli- and -copter and appropriated the latter as its own nickname for a helicopter—and also as a customizable root word (think gyrocopter). Hamburgers and helicopters have more in common than you thought.

All this to say that no, hamburgers weren’t originally made from ham. But they may at least be etymologically related to the meat. Ham gets its name from hamma, an Old High German word for the back of the knee. One theory about the ham of Hamburg is that it’s also derived from hamma, “in a transferred sense of ‘bend, angle,’ with reference to [the city’s] position on a river bend promontory,” per the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The other leading theory is that it comes from the Middle High German hamme, or “enclosed area of pastureland.” Really, it’s a full-circle moment either way—because what better to keep in a gated pasture than cattle?

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