Editorial - The Origin of "Ham"
December 1931 QST Article
Here 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."