For the most part, everything I write here has to do with preventing scams, fraud and identity theft. It’s “do this, don’t do that” 24/7 around here.
Today, I wanted to take a break from all that and delve into a bit of history, or etymology, I guess. We talk about “spam email” all the time, but have you ever wondered why it’s called “spam” to begin with?
Our story begins in 1970, with the “Spam” sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In this bit of warped British comedy, two patrons attempt to order breakfast at a restaurant that apparently incorporates Spam into nearly every dish. At a nearby table, a group of Vikings keeps launching into a song about the processed meat, which interrupts the conversation. Hey, I said it was warped. Sample dialog:
Mrs. Bun: Have you got anything without Spam?
Waitress: Well, there’s Spam, egg, sausage and Spam, that’s not got much Spam in it.
Mrs. Bun: I don’t want any Spam!
Mr. Bun: Why can’t she have egg, bacon, Spam and sausage?
Mrs. Bun: THAT’S got Spam in it!
Mr. Bun: Hasn’t got as much Spam in it as Spam, egg, sausage and Spam, has it?
Vikings: SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM…
Now, at this point, I’m going to use the term “nerd.” In no way do I mean this as a pejorative. This may come as a shock, but I myself am a nerd.
I’ll give you a moment to process that.
Okay, so I don’t have any particular interest in Star Trek, and I can’t stand Star Wars even a little bit, but I loved the Lord of the Rings (books and films), and I can geek out on obscure music history for hours on end. There are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes a “nerd” anyway; as I was once told many years ago, “I dunno, man…there’s just sumpin’ ’bout yew.”
At any rate, during the 1980s, certain BBS (Bulletin Board System) and MUD (Multi-User Dungeon, early online role-playing games) users would occasionally disrupt the proceedings by typing “SPAM” over and over again, in reference to the old Monty Python sketch. Since the earliest adopters of online activity tended to be nerds, a Python reference was a common point of reference among them. Nerds tend to like Monty Python. I can’t explain it. It just happens.
Soon, the term “spammy” began to apply to other things, such as ASCII artwork (large logos made out of text characters) pasted into messages. These would be dropped in either to disrupt the conversation or simply to annoy newcomers into leaving (sometimes these groups could be a little hostile to outsiders). It can be hard for a modern Internet user to understand the problem, but in the days of 1200 baud modems, this type of activity could be supremely bothersome.
The term was later carried over to Internet newsgroups (Usenet) in reference to messages that were either garbage, advertisements or chain letters (“Make Money Fast” was an early example that started on a dialup BBS and migrated onto Usenet several years later).
The term (and the messages) propagated much more quickly at this point, as they early BBS and MUD systems were usually local dialup deals; your modem would dial up a specific host computer, to which several other users could connect to. Usenet made use of the Internet as we know it today—computers all over the world, accessible from anywhere at any time. Since the term “spam” had already made its way to Usenet, it probably took about ten seconds for someone to use it in reference to an unwanted email (rather than an unwanted newsgroup posting).
So that’s how the term “spam” came to refer to junk email today, at least according to the several sources I checked. Some nerd correct me if I’ve erred, okay?
So how does Hormel (you know, the people who actually make Spam, the canned meat) feel about this? Lately, they’ve been sort of quiet on the subject. They now refer to their product as “SPAM” (all caps), and seem to be content as long as the term is used in lowercase (“spam”) in reference to junk email. Other than a couple unsuccessful attempts to stop software companies from using the word in product names, they seem to be trying to make their peace with their product’s name becoming synonymous with “unsolicited commercial email.”
I know one thing; I don’t envy them a bit. I mean, seriously, that can’t be fun for their marketing department. Maybe they should send an email message on the subject to everyone in the world. That would be sort of awesome, wouldn’t it?