The Origin of SPAM (The Food) & Spam (The Email)

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SPAM (The Food Item)

First, let's get the ingredients out of the way. SPAM is chopped pork shoulder meat with ham, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Unless, that is, it's SPAM Lite, in which case there's also some chicken thrown in there. Or SPAM Oven Roasted Turkey, which includes (we assume) turkey and is suitable for Muslims.

SPAM was invented in the late-Depression era, in 1937, which may explain at least some of why it seemed like a good idea: people were desperate. According to Nikita Khrushchev's book, Khrushchev Remembers, SPAM was a godsend for another hungry group — Russian soldiers in World War II. For a further illustration of how bad things were, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "“ who we really, really can't imagine eating SPAM — reportedly once referred to it as a "wartime delicacy."

And what does "SPAM" "“ sorry, we have to capitalize it that way, Hormel says so "“ actually stand for? Despite convincing evidence, it doesn't stand for "something posing as meat." The company's official explanation is that it's short for "spiced ham," but that wasn't always its party line. Hormel has also stated in the past that the name stands for "shoulder of pork and ham," although we can sort of understand why it wouldn't necessarily want to drive home the whole "shoulder" thing today. The name was suggested by Kenneth Daigneau, an actor who received the $100 prize in a contest Hormel had sponsored. Conveniently, he just happened to be the brother of a Hormel vice president. We think there's just a little too much mystery in this mystery meat. Then again, SPAM has sold over 6 billion cans, and what have we done lately?

SPAM (The Email Genre)

If you're sick of blaming dethroned Nigerian kings, triple-X porn sites and mail-order purveyors of Viagra for all the junk in your e-mail box, why not take issue with the real rascals behind the word.

spam-email.jpgIn 1970, the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus came up with one of their most beloved and inadvertently prescient sketches, in which a customer in a restaurant desperately tries to order something that doesn't contain SPAM, only to find that pretty much everything on the menu features it. In the course of his ill-fated dinner, a nearby party of Vikings "“ hey, we did say it was Monty Python "“ breaks into song: "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, lovely SPAM! Wonderful SPAM!" Clearly, repetition is funny. Also, and more relevant for the relationship between SPAM and email, repetition is annoying.

Apparently, the first people to make the connection between repetitive SPAM and repetitive email were enormous geeks, by which we mean to say they were players in "multi-user dungeons," or very early predecessors of games like World of Warcraft. Brad Templeton, who has done meticulous research on the topic, writes: "The term spamming got used to apply to a few different behaviors. One was to flood the computer with too much data to crash it. Another was to "˜spam the database' by having a program create a huge number of objects, rather then creating them by hand. And the term was sometimes used to mean simply flooding a chat session with a bunch of text inserted by a program (commonly called a "˜bot' today) or just by inserting a file instead of your own real time typing output. When the ability to input a whole file to the chat system was implemented, people would annoy others by dumping the words to the Monty Python SPAM Song. Another report describes indirectly a person simply typing "˜spam, spam...' in a Multi User Domain with a keyboard macro until being thrown off around 1985."

Early spam consisted of mass invitations to parties, broad anti-war messages ("THERE IS NO WAY TO PEACE. PEACE IS THE WAY"), and appeals for college tuition funding. The classic "MAKE MONEY FAST" appeared as a USENET post in the '80s, Templeton says, but as a one-off, not a constant barrage of email. Then, in 1994, USENET users were warned of a "Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon" in every single newsgroup. Until then spam had at least been somewhat avoidable. What a quaint era that was.

One Sketchy Breakfast: Items from the Monty Python Menu

"¢ 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, SPAM, SPAM, egg, and SPAM
"¢ SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, baked beans, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM and SPAM
"¢ Lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce served in the Provençale manner with shallots and aubergines, garnished with truffle paté, brandy and with a fried egg on top and SPAM

This piece was excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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February 27, 2009 - 7:20pm
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