Shel Silverstein's hot dog and the domain of "everything"

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A posthumous collection of Shel Silverstein's poems and drawings has just been published, with the title Every Thing On It. That's also the title of a poem contained in the collection, and Buzzfeed reproduced it in a post today. The verse displays the kind of lightly subversive wordplay that Silverstein is famous for.

I asked for a hot dog
With everything on it
And that was my big mistake,
'Cause it came with a parrot,
A bee in a bonnet,
A wristwatch, a wrench, and a rake.
It came with a goldfish,
A flag, and a fiddle,
A frog, and a front porch swing,
And a mouse in a mask—
That's the last time I ask
For a hot dog with everything.

The way that Silverstein plays with the meaning of "a hot dog with everything (on it)" is reminiscent of the old joke, "The Dalai Lama walks up to a hot dog vendor and says, 'Make me one with everything.'" A variant of this joke, featuring pizza instead of hot dogs, came up here a few months ago in a post by Geoff Pullum, about an Australian TV journalist trying to tell the joke to the Dalai Lama himself. Neal Whitman then gave the joke the full syntactic treatment on his Literal-Minded blog.

The humor of both the Dalai Lama joke and the Silverstein verse hinges on the referential ambiguity of everything. In the context of hot dog vendors (or pizza joints), everything refers to "every topping available." But if the domain of the quantifier everything is willfully misread to refer to "everything on earth" or "everything in the universe," hilarity ensues. Silverstein encourages an absurdly wide construal of everything by spelling it as every thing in the title of the poem, underscoring his move from the everything of conventional hot dog toppings to, well, everything but the kitchen sink.

All of this is somewhat similar to the jokes that were made back in 2006 over the Transportation Security Administration's advice to fliers, "We encourage everyone to pack gel-filled bras in their checked baggage." As I discussed in a Language Log post at the time, a lot of people had fun with this by intentionally misinterpreting the domain of the quantifier everyone. (See that post for further discussion of quantifier domain restriction as a thorny problem in the philosophy of language. [And see also Agustín Rayo, "When does 'everything' mean everything?", Analysis, 63(278):100-6, April 2003; and Timothy Williamson, "Everything," Language and Philosophical Linguistics, John Hawthorne and Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.])

For another playful take on everything, check out the song "One Everything" by They Might Be Giants, from their 2008 children's album Here Come the 123's:


  1. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    My daughter used to ask me to draw things for her. One time she said "Daddy, draw everything!" So I said, "what do you mean, everything?" She said "Everything!" So I proceeded to ask her if I should draw a squid, a balloon, a boat, a tree, etc, etc, and each time she said "Yes! Draw everything!"

    Thankfully nap time came and I didn't have to worry about drawing "peace", "linguistics", "centaur-porn", or any other difficult topics.

  2. QuercusMax said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    Five Guys (burger chain) explicitly lists on its menu what you'll get if you ask for "everything". Apparently "everything" only includes half of the available toppings, and does not include jalapenos, hot sauce, barbeque sauce, or non-grilled onions.

  3. Dunx said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

    This reminds me of the signs in Britain which are always fun to misconstrue –

    "Dogs must be carried on the escalators."

    [(myl) Yes.]

  4. mike said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    There's a second half to the Dalai Lama joke, which I'm sure must be lying around here somewhere already. (?) Anyway, the Lama gets his hot dog and pays with a five-dollar bill. The vendor takes the bill and pockets it. "Don't I get change?", the Dalai Lama asks. "Change comes from within," the vendor replies.

    Similar wordplay, yes?

  5. Faldone said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

    One pizza joint in town offers pizza with everything, with or without anchovies.

  6. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

    As they say, be careful what you wish for….

  7. Cameron Majidi said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    Just this morning I was considering the concept of the "everything bagel". A woman on line in front of me at the coffee shop asked for a sesame bagel. The response was that they did not have sesame bagels, but they did have everything bagels, and the kid working the counter actually said: "I'm not sure if 'everything' includes sesame seeds". Even though I hadn't had my coffee yet at that point, I was still alert enough to chuckle.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    It possibly depends on what mood you're in. If you're feeling snarky about the general style of exposition, these thoughts creep in. If a naff writer uses a phrase like "people of all shapes and sizes", you start asking: "Ones like giant tetrahedra 5 light-years on an edge?" … "Ones 20.1 furlongs tall shaped like six-legged centaurs with antlers?" … "Ones two ångströms tall shaped like the Eiffel Tower?"

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

    Nothing to do with the reference of "everything", but this reminded me of "The Aleph" by Borges, with its longer synecdoches for "everything".

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    As Stephen Wright says, "You can't have everything . . . where would you put it?"

  11. Ø said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    "Shoes must be worn in the dining hall."

    Apart from the dog/escalator deliberate misconstruction, this one lends itself to "Oh no, my new shoes aren't worn at all yet!"

    None of this would happen if people would just learn to avoid the passive voice.

  12. Axl said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    Not sure about the reading of the poem here. It clearly does not describe a hot dog with everything, or every thing, on it. It describes a hot dog with eleven inappropriate things on it (thirteen if you count the bonnet and the mask). Which says even more about the use of "everything" than is highlighted in the post.

    [(bgz) Well, perhaps the hot dog vendor was working his way through the catalog of every( )thing and only got through eleven items before the narrator realized his mistake and moved on.]

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    @Ralph Hickok: Beside everything else, of course.

  14. Janelle B. said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    @Axl I believe Silverstein would have quite a hard time covering "every thing" in his poem; I believe he was giving examples, not a comprehensive list. My evidence to that assumption is in his use of a dash at the "end" of his list, as if to say that he could go on, but will instead present his conclusion that he will no longer ask for "everything". That was my analysis.

  15. Erik said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

    If I got a hot dog with all that for $5, I'd say that is was a pretty good deal and buy a couple more! A *good* deal, mind you, not a *big* deal (after looking at the posting a couple up from here, that has a completely different connotation, although trying to get all the stuff listed in the poem down a toilet would definitely cause some problems.)

  16. John Burgess said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    Cameron Majid: "Everything bagels' do not, as a rule, include salt crystals as a topping. To my disappointment.

  17. DJ said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

    When I was in grade school, a family friend told my mom he wanted "everything" in his coffee. She obliged with milk, sugar, salt, pepper, cinnamon, mustard, and ketchup…and possibly a few other "things" that I don't remember (or wasn't let in on).

    His response when he tasted it could be described as "explosive," as I recall.

  18. Aaron Binns said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 1:13 am

    When I order my daily "everything bagel" I bemoan that "everything" is not a power set of all the toppings.

  19. maidhc said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 4:31 am

    When purchasing tacos, I am often asked "You want everything?", to which I answer "What's everything?", because I want to see if the list includes sour cream, which I would ask to be excluded. Usually it's not there because you only get it with the more expensive "super taco". So "everything" generally consists of onion, cilantro and salsa. But not "everywhere", which is why I ask.

  20. unekdoud said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 5:18 am

    I totally expected an everything bagel reference. Kottke has already collected a list of jokes:

    Also, the dialogue from the Nobody Likes Onions podcast:

    "When I think of 'everything', arsenic pops to mind first."

    "um… Aluminum siding?"

    "No aluminum siding, no lottery tickets, no ice-cream, no f**king fish…"

  21. Breffni said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    Everyone isn't the only source of ambiguity in "We encourage everyone to pack gel-filled bras in their checked baggage". The exact same readings are available for "We encourage you to pack gel-filled bras in your checked baggage", or "Please pack gel-filled bras in checked baggage", or "Gel-filled bras must be packed in checked baggage". The reference of "gel-filled bras" has to be pragmatically determined too. If the reference of either one is made explicit, the ambiguity of the other goes away:

    – "We encourage everyone who has any to pack gel-filled bras in their checked baggage."
    – "We encourage everyone to pack gel-filled bras, if any, in their checked baggage"

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    I like the way John Linnell, setting out to write a children's song about the number 1, leapt directly into confronting confusing millennia-old cosmological questions. (Or are they just questions about language? Or does that question even make any sense?)

  23. marie-lucie said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    I am not familiar with asking for "everything" on a bagel, pizza or similar item: people here ask for "the works" (and some menus specify what this means). I thought this was General North American, but no one here has mentioned it, so perhaps it is Canadian? or even regional?

  24. Roget Z said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    And then there's the follow-on joke, the man buys a hot dog from the Buddhist hot dog vendor, hands hi a 20, receives his dog and waits. After a minute he says, 'what about my change?' and the hot dog vendor says, 'change must come from within.'

  25. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    Reminds me of Stanislaw Lem's story (from the Cyberiad) about the machine that did Nothing.
    (The universe is saved in the nick of time by shutting it down, but remains in the pitiful state we see today, full of vast tracts of Nothing.)

  26. Mary Bull said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    @ marie-lucie

    In my native Texas, I used to hear, "the works."

    In Nashville, TN, it's "everything."

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    @marie-lucie: With no data at all, I'd expect "the works" to be understood everywhere (in the U.S.), but "everything" to be much more common these days.

    @Aaron Binns: Let me get this straight. You want a bagel with poppy seeds; sesame seeds; garlic; onion; poppy seeds and sesame seeds; poppy seeds and garlic; poppy seeds and onion; sesame seeds and garlic; sesame seeds and onion; garlic and onion; poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and garlic; poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and onion; poppy seeds, garlic, and onion; sesame seeds, garlic, and onion; and poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, and onion?

    Salt has been omitted from this bagel for reasons of space.

  28. Rube said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    There is also the Ottawa/Quebec "all dressed" pizza, which, IIRC, is not dressed with it "all", but only with pepperoni, green peppers and mushrooms.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    The wiki article on claims "dragged through the garden" is local jargon for "with all available fixings." I can't say I remember ever hearing that turn of phrase during the time I lived in Chicago and patronized establishments selling such hot dogs. But it remains the case that the meaning of "everything" even in the more restricted sense can vary with context, as a number of fixings customarily added to hot dogs in/near Chicago are not customary elsewhere in the country.

    [(bgz) See also Barry Popik's page on the history of "dragged through the garden"/"run through the garden".]

  30. Jim said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    Everyone should be required to listen to "Hear Come the 1 2 3s."

  31. Toma said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    What Ø said about passive voice troubles me.

  32. GeorgeW said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    I think 'all the way' might be the local preference (Florida), or maybe just mine.

  33. Karl Weber said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    @ Ralph Hickok: Or as in the parallel Stephen Wright gag: "The sign in the restaurant said 'We serve breakfast any time.' So I said, 'Okay, I'll have French toast during the Renaissance."

  34. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:

    I've lived in Chicago for near-on my whole life and am a frequent consumer of Chicago-style hot dogs. (I actually finished one not half an hour ago.) I've never heard "dragged through the garden" or anything similar. If you want it Chicago-style, you just say "the works" or "everything" or "Chicago-style". In fact, usually, the guy making the hot dog asks me if I want "everything" on it.

    As for the person who said that "change must come from within" was the same sort of issue – it's not. The "make me one with everything" has both syntactic and referential scope ambiguity. (The syntactic ambiguity is in "make [for] me one with everything" versus "make me [into] one with everything". The referential scope is, as said above, the difference between "everything (that is available for a topping)" and "everything (in the universe)".) The "change" ambiguity is simply equivocatory wordplay. (But fun wordplay. That pair of jokes is among my favorite.)

  35. Graeme said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    TMBG sing Parmenides. Sweet.

  36. Michael said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    Now that we've (nearly) exhausted everything, can we move on to nothing?

  37. Tom Duff said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    This reminds me of a friend's daughter who, reacting to a surfeit of television advertising, once said "I don't want everything. I just want one of everything."

  38. parkrrrr said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: does he not also want nothing on his everything bagel?

  39. John said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    And presumably "a pizza with everything on it", even if it was construed to mean "everything we serve in the restaurant", would have to be topped with every other kind of pizza on the menu, including a pizza with everything on it.

    I suppose this could be prevented from becoming an infinite loop by simply putting this second pizza upside down on the very top, but then it's more of a sandwich with everything in it…

  40. Brett said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

    @John: I think that even the sandwich solution is unsatisfactory. What stops you from from ordering the pizza topped with all pizzas that are not topped with pizzas like themselves?

  41. Jonathan D said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    Breffni and Dunx have pointed out that the gel-filled bras ambiguity comes about, like dogs and escalators, quite apart from a need for to put a scope on "everything". Eli also points out that there is also syntatic amgibuity in the Dalai Lama joke – I would go further and say that it is the referential ambiguity is only a bonus topping on a joke that would work well without it (I remember a genie in a milk bar). There is no suggestion of misunderstanding the referential scope clearly implied by whichever syntactic interpretation is understood.

    I'd say the Silverstein is the only one really playing on referential scope, but either way, I now feel like a burger with the lot.

  42. Army1987 said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    A hot dog is better than nothing. Nothing is better than eternal happiness. Therefore, a hot dog is better than eternal happiness.

  43. Anton Sherwood said,

    September 25, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

    The last Stephen Wright joke mentioned reminds me of a skit of The Kids in the Hall, in which a restaurant customer complains of having to wait for his bill. The headwaiter assures him that the bill is being prepared right now, and the customer wails, "I don't want it now, I want it ten minutes ago!"

  44. Just another Peter said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

    I've made a tshirt that says:

    Nothing is better than a good cup of coffee.
    I'll have nothing thanks.

  45. teucer said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    And then there's ordering your hot dog "all the way," which is definitely a regionalism – outside of North Carolina, I expect it to be met with confusion, but within the piedmont it traditionally means mustard, onions, chili, and possibly slaw.

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