December 1931 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL
for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
Here it is the year 2019, a full 88 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
Aside: At the time of this article's publishing, ARRL founder Hiram Percy, W1AW,
was listed as president in the Officers roll call.
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
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."
Posted July 15, 2019 (original 9/21/2012)