It was November 8. Big Game was approaching. My fingers were poised above my keyboard, ready to type my favorite UC Berkeley slur for all alumni to appreciate. But the word Weenie rang hollow in my mind. I pulled my hands away from my laptop to think. When was the last time I’d heard anyone say it? I supposed it had dropped out of favor. But why? Was it sexist? Body-shaming? I had always assumed the term signified the general wimpiness and lack of character of Cal folks, with a juvenile wink to supposed anatomical inferiority. But this is 2022. Standards are changing, and I want to insult responsibly. I couldn’t call anyone a Weenie until I understood how the moniker had come about and whether it was still around to make anyone but me giggle.
So, I pulled that thread. I pulled hard. And before I knew it, the whole blue-and-gold sweater lay unraveled at my feet.
Sometimes a weenie is just a weenie
My first move was clear: dive into the Daily archives. The earliest use of weenie is from October 14, 1918, in a section that also announced the upcoming wedding of Elizabeth Elliott, Class of 1920, to Edwin Taylor, Class of 1919:
1922 Women Are Entertained - Roble Club entertained the freshman women at a picnic last Saturday night on the further side of Lake Lagunita. Upon arriving there all gathered around the big bonfire and enjoyed a “weenie bake.” The balance of the evening was pleasantly spent with games.
Investigative journalism isn’t so hard after all. Surely this was the origin story. It was football season; there was a bonfire (which was a Big Game tradition before it became necessary to protect the breeding ground of California tiger salamanders); the Roble ladies were roasting their rivals. Mystery solved.
Except there was no official Big Game in 1918. Stanford had just come out of its rugby phase and had to be persuaded to play football at all that year. Also, there was a global pandemic, and men were at war—more wrenches thrown into the affair. We did play Cal. But according to a Sports Illustrated story written during the next pandemic, the Stanford side of the 1918 Big Game was composed of volunteers from the Student Army Training Corps—military personnel, some of whom were not even students. Cal won, 67–0, in what would come to be called “the game that never was.” Moreover, the match was played on Thanksgiving Day, more than six weeks after the women of Roble skewered their dinner. They weren’t insulting anyone.
A decade later, the Daily contains another reference to an actual Big Game bonfire involving weenies, again evidently of the meat-stick variety. “Weary workers on the new bonfire were rewarded for their efforts” by members of the Women’s Committee, who brought coffee, sandwiches, cigarettes, apples, and weenies.
Aside from earnest mentions of frankfurters, a handful of men afflicted with what would become the old-timiest of old-timey nicknames (see Winston “Weenie” Norman, ’29), and a 1965 Quad yearbook entry professing that El Tigre eating club welcomed “foreign students, engineers, English majors, Daily staff members, studs, weenies, jocks, intellectuals, ad infinitum,” there was nothing. Even the 1972 Stanford sports history, The Color of Life Is Red, doesn’t appear to contain the term, I learned from university archivist Josh Schneider. (Naturally, I’d taken this investigation to the highest authorities.)
And then: January 10, 1973.
The high temperature that Wednesday was 53 degrees. The front page of the Daily included a story about the possibility that Stanford would close its overseas campus in Vienna (an exquisite coincidence). And on page 5, Jerry Coleman, ’74, had penned an article titled “USC–the New Enemy.” It asserted that because of changes on and off the field, Stanford’s energy had become “directed South, not North.” The rivalry with Cal . . . just wasn’t a thing anymore. Toward the end of the piece, Coleman quotes a “Band freak”:
“As far as pranks go, Cal’s weenies haven’t done much for a longtime [sic]. And they never touch the Band Shak. But this fall, some SC guys managed to break down the door of the Shak. There’s your new rival.”
If this was indeed the first printed instance of Cal fans being likened to Lit’l Smokies, I’d been misinterpreting the disparagement for decades. It’s got nothing to do with the standing of our rivalry or even good-natured banter with the school across the Bay. The Band freak couldn’t be clearer: Cal students are Weenies because they’re not worth our time.
I decided to reach out to Coleman. He was the Band announcer in 1972 and 1973, and he was less philosophical than I was about the whole Weenie affair. “The Band’s people always called cal weenies during that era,” he says. (I’ve left Cal in lowercase letters to preserve the spirit of the times.) “Perhaps the term came up during our weekly SMUT sessions (Stanford Marching Unit Thinkers) on Monday nights to plan out the Saturday song list and formations—most of which appeared to be long weenies on training wheels.”
Coleman seemed awfully laid-back, considering he might have been responsible for a beloved (at least by me) dig against Cal having gone ’70s viral. He figures it was just one of many student attempts at, well, sophomoric jokes. “Lots of weenies on those young minds, many of them blowing off steam from organic chemistry or electrical engineering classes,” he says. OK, so the beginnings of Weenie were perhaps less dramatic than I’d imagined. But I still needed to find out what had happened between then and now.
To the literature!
Weenie is derived from wiener, which can mean “a frankfurter or similar sausage,” “a weak, socially inept, or boringly studious person” (now we’re getting somewhere!), or a penis.
According to Google, weenie is sometimes confused with weeny, which is an offshoot of tiny. As in, “Cal grads have wee vocabularies.” Indeed, since the 1780s, weeny (or weenie) has been used to denote something physically small.
In the early 1900s, Wienerwurst, aka Vienna sausages, became popular in the United States and were dubbed weenies. But that’s not the whole story. A 1988 New York Times column explains, “College students know the noun in another sense, a slang term for ‘grind,’ ‘wonk’ or ‘throat,’ meaning ‘serious student’ or ‘obnoxious premed.’” I think that’s giving Cal too much credit, but it jibes with the 1973 Band member’s lament.
And so, through the 1970s and ’80s, perhaps as a simple adoption of LSJUMB slang, Weenies caught fire on the Farm. In 1974, it’s used once in the Daily to insult USC, which is mildly interesting but will be disregarded because I don’t care about them.
By 1978, the appellation reliably appears in the Daily and in Quad yearbooks. It bears a capital W—signifying its importance in the Cardinal lexicon—and is employed with relish. A 1983 Quad photo of Berkeley football fans spelling words in card stunts is captioned simply “Weenie Remedial Writing Section.”
In the 1985 Quad, a list of memorable Donner dorm antics would appear to finally link the Weenies with actual hot dogs when residents ran “an inflatable Oscar Mayer ‘Weenie’ to Berkeley on the day of Big Game ’84.” Possibly related (or, otherwise, extremely inappropriate) is a note in the same tome indicating that Trancos is the place to find “an eight-foot weenie.”
Three years later, the Quad includes a photo in which defensive tackle Sean Scheller, ’88, and noseguard Ray Huckestein, ’91, team up to tackle a Cal player. Caption: “This Weenie’s going nowhere.”
A sausage bomb
I was inching closer to my own student years, and there was one detail I couldn’t avoid any longer. I needed to rule out the remote possibility that Cal gave themselves the title or somehow considered it a badge of honor, thereby possibly hastening the end of its use on the Farm.
Cue the entrance of an unimpeachable source: Roxanne Nilan, MA ’92, PhD ’99, a former university archivist who has written or co-written several books about Stanford’s history. “As far as I know, it started the other way around,” says Nilan, who has a bachelor’s and a master’s from That Other School Across the Bay. “Cal students have called Stanford students weenies forever. My father and brother used the term—it’s one reason I was amazed my dad even suggested I apply to Stanford. I didn’t want to be a weenie!”
I’d have to take this all the way to the East Bay. Which wasn’t that hard since I live there. I asked UC Berkeley associate university archivist Kathryn Neal to help me pin down which school started the fire and whether Cal had ever used it to roast innocent, respectable Stanford students. She had an answer within hours, and I regret to inform you that their libraries are slightly bigger than ours.
“I couldn’t find use of that term in the context of the Big Game any earlier than the late 1980s,” Neal says. There are just 95 instances of the word weenie in all of Cal’s archives. What’s more, a 1984 Daily Californian story about the rivalry credits Stanford: “Cardinal backers will point and yell, ‘Weenie!,’ one of the favorite nicknames bestowed upon the people at Berkeley.”
I don’t doubt that Cal students and alums sometimes used the word. Perhaps they liked to quote The Sandlot, a 1993 film in which a character named Squints puts down the new kid by calling him an “L7 weenie.” They may even have read aloud Where’s Weenie?, a 2003 lift-the-flap board book that you’ll be relieved to know features a dachshund who likes to hide. But I digress. Cal students might have deployed the term, but there’s no evidence they coined it. I considered that loose end all tied up.
Remember the weenies
The 1992 Gaieties was titled Achtung Weenie. A decade later, students were regaled with a performance of Planet of the Weenies. But that musical highlight excepted, it’s right around then, at the turn of the century, that the roast starts to lose its sizzle.
In the run-up to the 101st Big Game, in 1998, Brian Eule, ’01, wrote in the Daily that “[c]alling Cal the ‘Weenies’ makes about as much sense as calling this campus ‘Stanfurd.’” And he’s not the only writer who begins caging the word in quotation marks—a linguistic kiss of death if I ever saw one.
Then the capital W falls away. “We showed those blue and gold weenies for the sixth year in a row whom the Axe belongs to,” read the 2001 Quad. The following year, the yearbook grows desperate. “Down with the Weenies!!” it proclaims. Yes, with two exclamation points.
In 2007, there’s coverage of an event in White Plaza where students participated in “dunking a weenie from across the bay.” When you’ve got to specify the natural habitat, it’s possible the word is no longer part of the vernacular.
As for STANFORD, we haven’t used Weenie since 2010 (in a caption about “Big Sail” that I’m pretty sure I wrote). In 2011, the term makes one last appearance in Gaieties, when the university’s then president, John Hennessy, urges the crowd to “go whip those Cal weenies and win Big Game!”
And then, nothing. Well, almost. Stanford did win Big Game nine consecutive times between 2010 and 2018. Maybe it was considered overkill to insult wimpy little bears.
In any case, the paper trail sputters out. And I hadn’t heard anyone utter the word Weenie in what seemed like forever. Was that the end? Might I be among the last remaining alums to know the true extent to which Cal sucks? I contacted the producer of the 2022 Gaieties, Cardinal Sin, to see if she was familiar with the term. I never heard back, probably because I’d used the ancient art of email to attempt communication. So I Slack-messaged STANFORD’s student interns, who are contractually obligated to respond to me. Lauren Koong, ’26, put the final nail in Oski’s coffin: “My dad (alum) is the only person I’ve ever heard refer to Cal people as ‘weenies.’”
Summer Batte, ’99, is the editor of Stanfordmag.org. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.