Editorial - The Origin of "Ham"
December 1931 QST Article
it is the year 2012, a full 81 years after this editorial was published
in ARRL's QST magazine, and nobody is any more certain of the origin
of the term "Ham" being applied to amateur radio operators than they
were in 1931. Being closer to the date of origin, though, might have
given editor Kenneth Warner a bit more insight. In fact, the term Ham
is usually uttered in a mildly pejorative manner; e.g., "he is such
a ham." Per the QST's editor's research, Ham might be a shortening of
Hamlet, referring to Shakespeare's play and the 2-bit actors who endlessly
recited the lines in an attempt to impress others. Analogously, a Ham
radio operator would be a professional broadcaster wannabe. However,
Mr. Warner offers an even more plausible explanation that has the term
descending more directly from the craft of amateur radio operation.
Read on to find out.
December 1931 QST
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Approximately every so often an anguished member writes in to ask us
how we can dare to apply the term ham to radio amateurs. Not because
it is undignified, for we're not much on false dignity in amateur radio,
particularly within our own family, but because, says our correspondent,
everybody knows that a ham means a punk, a lid, a poor performer, a
person not fully familiar with his vegetables. Why throw asparagus*
upon ourselves, our inquirers ask.
Now we arise to remark that
if we felt for one moment that that was a correct interpretation of
the meaning of ham, it would be a thoroughly hated word at the very
top of our Index Expurgatorius. We'd have a town ordinance in West Hartford
prohibiting its utterance and we'd pay a bounty to QST's proof-readers
to run down the despised term. But as a matter of fact we're quite convinced
that the appellation is an honorable one, one over which we need have
no qualms whatever.
Somebody's dictionary suggests that ham
is derived from hamfatter, which was a word used in a popular refrain
of many years ago. Just what the significance was is not now clear.
Then there are many people who believe that the word comes from the
theatrical field, being derived from "Hamlet" - because the ham actor
was forever strutting the boards and reciting from "Hamlet." For ourselves,
we find a much more convincing account in an article on the etymology
of the language of sports, by William Henry Nugent, appearing in The
American Mercury several years ago. Mr. Nugent establishes that the
United States learned its first lessons in sports journalism and sports
slang from the British Isles, where early writers invented a special
style and vocabulary that are still in use. Ham, says he, "began as
an abbreviation of amateur to am, which the cockney foot-racers and
pugilists of the 70's pronounced h'am."
The moment one glimpses
that ham is derived directly from amateur, much is apparent that before
escaped recognition. One has only to consider, for instance, the way
the word amateur is abused. Webster says that an amateur is "one who
is attached to or cultivates a particular pursuit, study, or science
from taste, without pursuing it professionally"; there is no implication
of lack of skill. Yet how often have we heard people say, speaking of
many things besides radio, "Pooh, he's only an amateur!" They are wrong,
dear friends, as sure as you're born, and they've merely displayed the
depths of their ignorance. We accept no such connotation with respect
to amateur; neither do we with respect to ham, and for the identic reason.
The word came to us in amateur radio from the wire telegraphing
fraternity, where a beginning operator was known as a ham operator.
That our wire brethren, in professional scorn, employed it to mean a
poor operator does not make that application correct; the misuse is,
in fact, blood brother to the even more common distortion of amateur.
If we borrowed the term from them we took it in its proper sense, and
emphatically left behind any stigma of the opprobrious. There is, we
repeat, nothing in the derivation of either amateur or ham to imply
a lack of skill, but rather the contrary.
Hams we are, then,
and proud of it!
Kenneth B. Warner (secretary,
A.R.R.L.), Editor-in-Chief and Business Manager
* Note from Kirt: My guess is that the editor
was making a pun on "cast aspersions" when saying "throw asparagus."