Where does “spam” come from?

Have you ever thought to yourself Why do they call junk mail “spam”? Today, in reading what is shaping up to be an outstanding book – Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature – I learned the etymology of this funny word. Pinker is quoted below.

Pinker writes:

Spam is not, as some people believe, an acronym for Short, Pointless, and Annoying Messages. The word is related to the name of the luncheon meat sold by Hormel since 1937, a portmanteau from SPiced hAM. But how did it come to refer to e-mailed invitations to enlarge the male member and share the ill-gotten gains of deposed African despots? Many people assume that the route was metaphor. Like the luncheon meat, the e-mail is cheap, plentiful, and unwanted, and in one variant of this folk etymology, spamming is what happens when you dump Spam in a fan. Thought these intuitions may have helped make the word contagious, its origin is very different. It was inspired by a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which a couple enter a cafe and ask the waitress (a Python in drag) what’s available. She answers:

Well, there’s egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg bacon and spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam; spam egg spam spam bacon and spam; spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam; spam spam egg and spam; spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam, or Lobster Thermidor: a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.

… The mindless repetition of the word spam inspired late-1980s hackers to use it as a verb for flooding newsgroups with identical messages, and a decade later it spread from their subculture to the populace at large.

For more on the lexical contributions of the computer nerd/hacker subculture, click here.

12 Responses to “Where does “spam” come from?”
  1. Jim Lippard says:

    The first spammers to whom the word was popularly applied were Lawrence Canter and Martha Siegel, a married couple who spammed Usenet newsgroups with ads for their immigration law practice, which was essentially charging people for information they could get for free from U.S. government websites.

    Canter and Siegel were based here in Phoenix, Arizona, and were users of the first commercial ISP in Phoenix, Internet Direct, which was started by a couple of friends of mine. They were quickly kicked off the ISP, and all ISPs began to introduce terms and conditions into their acceptable use policies which specifically disallowed the practice.

    Canter was subsequently disbarred. They wrote a book called _How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway_, divorced, and then Siegel reissued a version of the book under her own name titled _How to Make a Fortune on the Internet_ that I believe contains at least one reference to me in it due to my opposition to spam (and numerous references to people I know), though I am not privileged to possess a copy.

    The Wikipedia page on Canter and Siegel is pretty good.

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