Spam (n.)(v.) - Spammity Spam, Wonderful Spam
Canned ham luncheon meat manufactured by Hormel.
Unwanted, voluminous, and obnoxious email or other digital message that crowds out wanted and useful content.
To repeat something over and over to the point of nuisance.
History & Etymology
Yum, yum, what a tasty topic today. Actually I’m not sure how tasty it actually is, I guess it depends on if you like SPAM or not. Let’s get down to some history.
According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America Jay Hormel, son of George Hormel founder of the Hormel meat company, needed a way to sell pork shoulder that wasn’t selling very well. So Jay had a canned spiced ham created, but what to call this creation? Jay wanted a word that could be Trademarked, so a contest was held to decide the name of this new meat product with a one hundred dollar prize. Of course who would win but the brother of the Hormel vice president, an actor by the name of Kenneth Daigneau. The winning name was SPAM.
And that’s the story behind the name, but it’s still a bit unsatisfying. I wanted to know if it actually meant something initially, but the Hormel company only is keeping a tight lip on what it means. They only say that a few retired members of Hormel management actually know what it means. Some speculation say it might be a portmanteau of SPiced hAM, or a shortened version of Shoulder of Pork and hAM. Somewhere I’ve also heard that it was an acronym of Shit Posing As Meat.
I think that last acronym was actually created during World War II when, due to its shelf stable and canned nature, the US military chose it as a staple of it’s rations for troops stationed around the world. It spawned phrases like “Uncle SPAM”, “The SPAM Fleet”, and even when the USO was touring they were on the “SPAM Circuit.” Anywhere the US military was stationed SPAM left an indelible mark on the people. Especially in places like Hawaii where it’s become a staple in the local cuisine.
Even in England after the troops returned home they brought their taste for this magical canned ham home with them and shared it with their families. In 1970 it was still popular enough for the comedy group Monty Python to include SPAM in a sketch during their popular show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Now just repeating the same word over and over drowning out all other conversation, while funny in the sketch, can get pretty annoying. This comedy sketch inspired the practice we now call spamming.
In the early days of the internet when Bulletin board systems and Multi-User Dungeons were popular, spamming was used to scroll unwanted text off screen, or to annoy unwanted newcomers to a chat room until they would leave. For example when Star Wars fans would invade a Star Trek room the regular users of the room would repeat spam, or some other word or phrase over and over making it difficult for the invaders to get a word in edgewise.
Later spam became more generalized as a term for any that was posted multiple time to the point that it would become bothersome. This is when it became associated with unwanted and unsolicited messages.
In 1998 the New Oxford English Dictionary updated the entry for the word spam adding this new meaning to the already existing reference to the canned luncheon meat.
This isn’t exactly genericization, when a company loses a trademarked word due to its ubiquitous use, but it does come pretty close causing Hormel to take extra care to protect their trademark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cooking show where there actually use the word SPAM to describe this the meat product, instead using terms like spiced ham or “The Magical Canned Ham.”
In fact for a while Hormel was trying to fight the use of the word spam to describe unwanted junk emails, but now they’ve lightened up a bit. Though they have released some guidelines they would like the internet to follow when referring to its product.
"Please Do: Always put the trademark SPAM in all capital letters. Follow SPAM with "Luncheon Meat" or other descriptor. Remember, a trademark is a formal adjective and as such, should always be followed by a noun."
And actually now that I think of it, it might not be such a bad thing for SPAM to be associated with junk mail like it is. Just talking about it and thinking about the word has made me want to buy some and try it again. I haven’t tried spam in probably over 15 years.