Word Nerd: Why is spam called spam?

17 Jul

At every stage of civilization, human beings have battled different scourges ranging from the plague to dandruff. One of the scourges of our digital age is spam.

The word generally refers to intrusive advertising on the internet. If you have email and a mobile phone, you have probably received such messages from strangers urging you to buy anything, from fuzzy socks to real estate. But have you ever wondered why it’s called spam?

The reason can be traced back to the 1930s, when a US company called Hormel Foods launched a brand of canned meat called Spam. In 2007, the seven billionth can of Spam was sold.

The origin of the brand name remains unclear, but it has led to amusing speculation. According to one theory, the name was a contraction of “spiced ham”. Another theory was that Spam was an acronym for “Specially Processed American Meat” or “Specially Processed Army Meat” (World War II began soon after the brand was launched, and the cans became a staple in the diet of US troops, as it was difficult to get fresh meat at the warfront). Then came the jokes about Spam being “ham that didn’t pass its physical” and “meatloaf without basic training”.

Cut to 1970. The British surreal comedy troupe Monty Python aired their now-classic sketch titled “Spam”, in which two customers descend into a café that appears to be a Viking hangout, and are confronted with a menu irritatingly riddled with Spam.

The internet meaning of spam appears to be derived from this sketch. In the early days of the internet, marketers inundated Usenet newsgroups and individual email accounts with advertising messages. This phenomenon came to be called ‘spamming’, an allusion to the repetitive and unwanted recurrence of Spam in the sketch.

This phenomenon has even been reported in court decisions following lawsuits against spammers from the 1990s on. The term has also entered the world of video gaming, where it refers to the production of a large quantity of something (for example, rocket-spamming, grenade-spamming).

Understandably, Hormel Foods hasn’t been thrilled about all this, but it’s been a good sport, even releasing a special can to celebrate the Broadway premiere of the musical Spamalot, based on a Monty Python film.

The Python programming language, named after Monty Python, replaced the traditional words “foo”, “bar” and “baz” (used as metasyntactic variables, or placeholder words used in programming) with “spam”, “ham” and “eggs”.

Got any more Spam trivia to share? Leave a comment below!

Read more Word Nerd posts here.


By Uma Asher


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