Monday, October 21, 2013

Sliced Ham

I recently encountered a hotel full of hams. No, it wasn’t a convocation of pork butchers peddling their wares, nor was it a gathering of over-the-top actors looking for scenery to chew.  This was a meeting of amateur radio operators, hundreds of them, sizing up weird-looking equipment and trading tales of shortwave brief encounters with distant colleagues.

How did it happen that ham is the word applied to all of them? Ham is the meat of a hog’s hind leg, usually salted, dried, or smoked.  Its earliest use in English was in the 1630s.  It derives from the Old English hamm, meaning “bend of the knee,” ultimately from Proto-Indo-European konemo, “shin bone.” 

Ham, meaning “an inferior performer”—especially one who over-emotes—was first mentioned in America in the 1880s. It is a shortening of ham-fatter, which is thought to refer to the practice of amateur actors, especially minstrel performers, to remove their makeup with ham fat.  Somehow or other, the term is also related to a popular 1863 minstrel show song called “The Ham-Fat Man,” which was about the appeal of ham frying in a pan. It may also have been conflated with ham, used in the 1880s to refer to an incompetent prizefighter, derived from ham-fisted, that is “equipped with fists as clumsy as a couple of hams would be.”

When it comes to radio operators, the etymology is even less clear.  Some say a ham operator is simply an extended meaning of ham actor, a pejorative reference to the inferior skills of amateurs. One early usage is in the August, 1915 Technical World Magazine: "Then someone thought of the 'hams'. This is the name that the commercial wireless service has given to amateur operators..." Like other terms that started as unfavorable—Obamacare, for instance—it was adopted as a badge of honor by the very people to whom it referred.

But there are other claims on the etymology for ham radio. One is that it derives from the Cockney pronunciation of amateur, with an aspirated “h” sound preceding it. Others say it is from the word hammer, as a description of the insensitive way early radio operators hit the hand-operated telegraph keys.  Some insist it is a tribute to three radio pioneers, using their last initials: Heinrich Hertz, Edwin Armstrong, and Guglielmo Marconi.  One problem with this theory is that Armstrong was still unknown at the time ham was first used. Similarly, some people say ham is an acronym of a magazine, Home Amateur Mechanic, which covered radio topics.  Opinions differ on whether such a magazine ever existed. A few kind-hearted souls believe ham stems from the initials of the phrase “Help All Mankind,” referring to the occasional rescue activities of ham operators in their early days.

By far the most elaborate explanation is that it came from an amateur radio station operated in 1911 by three Harvard students named Albert S. Hyman, Bob Almy, and Poogie Murray, who assigned their last initials as the station’s call letters. As the story goes, they originally called the station “Hyman-Almy-Murray, which was cumbersome to type, so they changed the designation to “HY-AL-MU,” but that became confused with radio signals from a Mexican ship called the “Hyalmo,” so the intrepid trio settled on the simple “HAM.”  Hyman later testified at a Congressional hearing on amateur radio regulation, and his impassioned plea for exemption from licensing resulted in HAM being used as a symbol for all small amateur radio operators.

You’ll have to decide which explanation you prefer.

Something you definitely would not prefer is the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou—a rhymester of the school that Ogden Nash referred to as “worsifiers.” 

            A Virginia ham felt forsaken
            When he found all the lady hams taken,
                        So he took some Viagra 
                        And ran off to Niagara 
           With a sizzling Canadian bacon. 

           That old ham was a trifle cocksure, 
           With his hickory-smoked paramour, 
                        She cried, “You’re a flasher! 
                        You couldn’t be rasher— 
           What you need is a good sugar-cure.” 

            Then the bacon said, “You’re such a brute, oh! 
            I wish I could send you to Pluto! 
                        I don’t want a vendetta— 
                        What I crave’s a pancetta 
            Or maybe a spicy prosciutto.”    

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